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Popular University of Washington Course Calls “Bull” on Big Data


The University of Washington is not-so-subtly questioning Big Data. Its 10-week seminar “Calling BS in the Age of Big Data” explores how data is frequently misinterpreted to come up with bogus findings.

In a Seattle Times article titled, “We crashed UW’s class on calling BS. Here’s what we learned about sleuthing ‘big data,’ “ reporter Katherine Long showcases the popular UW lecture series by Information School professor Jevin West and Biology professor Carl Bergstrom, noting that similar courses are cropping up at institutions worldwide.

The article cites several examples the professors gave of misapplied Big Data. In one, a study purporting to discern criminality from photographed facial features actually turned out to be more of a mood detector, reflecting the fact that criminals don’t smile in mug shots.

The course title is intentionally provocative, to get attention—BS is American slang, roughly translating to bull scat. “We’re making it fun—making it entertaining, theatrical, to make it less intimidating,” West is quoted as saying.

Profanity aside, the overall takeaway is familiar to information professionals: It is one thing to collect Big Data, but quite another to analyze and use it correctly. The later is the expertise of the iSchools: connecting information, people and technology.

For those interested in more, the course syllabus is available online, as are YouTube videos of the seminars.