Big Data Vocabulary: Datafication

Last Friday, the Office of eDiplomacy within the State Department’s Bureau of Information Resource Management held its [email protected] conference on the theme of Moneyball Diplomacy. The event centered on how emerging tools and practices in data analysis can add a valuable quantitative lens to approaches in U.S. foreign development and policy.

My favorite speaker was Kenneth Cukier, Data Editor at The Economist, who gave a comprehensive, straightforward and intriguing account of the big data movement. Among his many points, one that stuck out was his statement that bid data is this generation’s Galilean moment. Big data holds a new, uninhibited potential for discovery and allows us to test our instincts quantitatively. At the same time, Cukier was diligent to caution that we need to “listen to it in a humble way.”

Within this framing, Cukier contextualized the big data movement in an important way. He introduced a term new to me, datafication, which describes how new and increasing types of information are now being captured in data form. In other words, we’re now quantifying things that we didn’t previously think to quantify. Below are just a few examples of datafication.


One way in which you and I are probably being datafied right now is by location. Smartphone applications draw upon our real-time geographic coordinates to recommend restaurants and events to us and help us navigate us back home. I was able to chat with a few professionals working at the State Department, who talked about potential mobile initiatives to be able to track diplomats abroad in cases of emergency.

Social Media

Turning to social media also lends an interesting perspective on how society is now datafied. Cukier succinctly summarized that Twitter datafies our conversations, Facebook datafies our friendships and LinkedIn datafies our professional lives. These online interactions can shield much light into our social dynamics and cultural future.

Foreign Aid

In the context of U.S. foreign affairs, USAID maintains an interactive map of its 12,700+ global project locations. Viewers can see where aid is going, types of projects, regional aid presence and other information to gauge the reach of U.S. development activities overseas. This datafication of foreign projects enables users to drill down to specific initiatives as well as look the entire picture of USAID work in the world.

Phone Theft

Advancing technology in biometric security is paving the way for mobile phones to be able to record a person’s individual gait. Datafication of how you walk can then be used to detect when a thief walks away with your phone.

As you can see, the broad range and scope of datafication is enormous. These examples highlighted by Cukier are just the tip of the iceberg, showing that datafication can apply to just about anything. I came away with Cukier’s talk equipped with a new vocabulary word, but also the awareness to not allow data to be a dictator. At the end of his keynote, Cukier warned that we not be blinded by data. As humorously stated by another speaker, if big data was around during the time of Henry Ford, it would have told him to build a faster horse.

Is your agency datafying something previously not captured in data form?

Intrigued? Watch the recorded video of Cukier’s keynote talk at [email protected]

Also check out the latest GovLoop guide, “Transforming Your Agency with Big Data,” to learn how to utilize the datafication for your organizational mission.

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