Demography in the Big Data Revolution: Changing the Culture to Forge New Frontiers

Abstract

Despite the widespread and rapidly growing popularity of Big Data, researchers have yet to agree on what the concept entails, what tools are still needed to best interrogate these data, whether or not Big Data’s emergence represents a new academic field or simply a set of tools, and how much confidence we can place on results derived from Big Data. Despite these ambiguities, most would agree that Big Data and the methods for analyzing it represent a remarkable potential for advancing social science knowledge. In my Presidential address to the Southern Demographic Association, I argue that demographers have long collected and analyzed Big Data in a small way, by parsing out the points of information that we can manipulate with familiar models and restricting analyses to what typical computing systems can handle or restricted-access data disseminators will allow. In order to better interrogate the data we already have, we need to change the culture of demography to treat demographic microdata as Big. This includes shaping the definition of Big Data, changing how we conceptualize models, and re-evaluating how we silo confidential data.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Although I do not discount the tremendous value of theory, I (and others) would argue that a major limitation to taking advantage of so many of the Big Data techniques like machine learning is that they are not designed for theory-driven modeling. As long as program officers at funding agencies and reviewers of journal articles demand theory-driven research, we will never be able to totally engage with Big Data in the way that it has been advanced in other disciplines.

  2. 2.

    According to Wilcox (2010), a minimum of 599 bootstraps is necessary; however, an exchange by statisticians on the online forum, Cross Validated, reveals that many statisticians consider 100,000 to 1000,000 iterations to be necessary, and decisions are made based on the number a researcher “can afford to wait for.” See https://stats.stackexchange.com/questions/86040/rule-of-thumb-for-number-of-bootstrap-samples.

  3. 3.

    This Presidential Address was given on the eve of the 2016 Presidential elections. Between the time of the address and this publication, it has become clear that the US Census Bureau is facing a budget crisis. Continuing Resolutions in Congress in 2016 and 2017 froze the overall federal budget at previous levels, which does not provide sufficient funding for the 2020 Census. The Trump administration has asked for additional funding, but the Census Project—a grassroots organization comprised demographers and other stakeholders—believes that the requested additional funds are insufficient for the task, even if given. Thus, the probability that the Census would allocate the funds necessary to upgrade the FSRDC computing environment seems even less likely now than in 2016.

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Correspondence to Stephanie A. Bohon.

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This paper is a version of the Presidential Address given to the Southern Demographic Association, Athens, Georgia, October 13, 2016.

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Bohon, S.A. Demography in the Big Data Revolution: Changing the Culture to Forge New Frontiers. Popul Res Policy Rev 37, 323–341 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11113-018-9464-6

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Keywords

  • Big Data
  • Population-generalizable data
  • Data security
  • Complex statistical modeling
  • Big data demography