Big Data Conference at Simmons

January 20, 2014

Explore the opportunities and challenges posed by big data for library and information science specialists

NEASIST & Simmons GSLIS ASIS&T hosted the "Big Data & You: Preparing Current and Future Information Specialists" conference on January 14, 2014 at MIT. Presentations were given by MIT Senior Software Engineer Sands Fish, Chitika Senior Data Engineer Bradley Strauss, and Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics John G. Wolbach Library Head Librarian Christopher Erdmann. Simmons GSLIS Adjunct Professor and Harvard University's Cabot Science Library Head of Collection Development Michael Leach moderated a panel discussion among the three experts. The conference provided insights into the opportunities and challenges posed by big data for library and information science specialists. Below is a brief summary of each presentation.

"Knowing in the Age of Networked Knowledge"

Fish demonstrated that the dynamic information landscape has changed the types of questions asked and answers in today's environment. Information is not static, such as staying updated on changing stock prices or how many earthquakes have happened from one moment to the next. The increase in connectivity across the world has created a complex, dynamic information environment in which there are multiple ways to present and consume knowledge. Issues persist surrounding standards, integration, and completeness, as well as the compromises made when information is more massive than anyone can consume.

"To get a grip" on the situation, Fish recommends that librarians and information specialist stay abreast of World Wide Web Consortium developments and participate in the development of online standards. He suggested not building a career around one type of technology as it is constantly changing. In addition, he recommended learning at least one data visualization technology.

"Is Big Data Bigger than a Bread Box?"

Strauss, who works for online advertising company Chitika, said that the term "big data" is not well-defined. He explored the perspectives surrounding big data and what it means as an approach to data analyses, decision making, and as a set of technologies. While he believes data will not tell us what to do, it has applications that may go beyond Internet advertising.

Strauss' advice to librarians was to take introductory courses in statistics, programming languages, and how to write computer programs. He predicts statistics will become relevant to every white-collar job in the next five to ten years.

"New Approaches to Library Data Services from an Astrophysics Perspective"

Erdmann emphasized the importance of demonstrating value and filling in skills gaps to meet the needs of today's information institutions. After demonstrating examples of content generated by the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics John G. Wolbach Library, he described how the content received media attention and increased awareness about the library's value. As another example, Erdmann highlighted GSLIS master's student Jeremy Guillette's creation of data sets and visualizations to synthesize researchers' findings. In addition, libraries are needed to create and maintain taxonomies and ontologies.

"If you get information from a librarian, it is trusted more than if you got it online," said Erdmann. He has taught a Data Scientist Training for Librarians course to provide data management skills. While Erdmann is currently seeking funding to start another series of the course, he suggests that librarians participate in the Software Carpentry Workshop, invite local experts to speak at institutions, and tap into their communities for guidance.

Panelists' Final Thoughts

Panelists' top recommended resources for library and information professionals include:

By Dean's Editorial Fellow Jennifer Moyer