Mechanical Turk and the Limits of Big Data

By | November 1, 2012

The Internet is transforming how researchers perform experiments across the social sciences.

It’s telling that the most interesting presenter during MIT Technology Review’s EmTech session on big data last week was not really about big data at all. It was about Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, and the experiments it makes possible.

Like many other researchers, sociologist and Microsoft researcher Duncan Watts performs experiments using Mechanical Turk, an online marketplace that allows users to pay others to complete tasks. Used largely to fill in gaps in applications where human intelligence is required, social scientists are increasingly turning to the platform to test their hypotheses.

The point Watts made at EmTech was that, from his perspective, the data revolution has less to do with the amount of data available and more to do with the newly lowered cost of running online experiments.