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Report on Big Data in Survey Research

Frauke Kreuter and colleagues debate key methodological issues in Public Opinion Quarterly article
Report on Big Data in Survey Research

Frauke Kreuter, Joint Program in Survey Methodology

Recent years have seen an increase in the amount of statistics describing different phenomena based on “Big Data.” This term includes data characterized not only by their large volume, but also by their variety and velocity, the organic way in which they are created, and the new types of processes needed to analyze them and make inference from them. The change in the nature of the new types of data, their availability, and the way in which they are collected and disseminated is fundamental, the authors say, and this change constitutes a paradigm shift for survey research. There is great potential in Big Data, but there are some fundamental challenges that have to be resolved before its full potential can be realized.

The report provides examples of different types of Big Data and their potential for survey research; it also answers four key questions that examine the role of Big Data in survey research,

  1. Can / Should Big Data be used to generate population statistics related to knowledge, opinion, and behavior?
  2. How can Big Data improve and / or complement existing “classical” research methods such as surveys and / or censuses?
  3. Can Big Data outperform surveys? What, if any, current uses of Big Data (to learn about public knowledge, opinion, and behaviors) appear promising? Which types of applications seem inappropriate?
  4. What are the operational and statistical challenges associated with the use of Big Data?

It concludes that Big Data can be useful in complementing survey research, but a more clear understanding of sources and estimations of error in Big Data is pivotal to making reliable statistical inference from them. From a research perspective, it is also important to gain more clarity regarding the protection of personal information and the manner in which different types of Big Data are created. 

See Public Opinion Quarterly article (may be paywalled for non-university readers)