The New York Times recently reported on the results of a fascinating project conducted at Stanford University. Using over 50 million images drawn from Google Street View, along with ZIP code data, the researchers were able to associate automobile ownership preferences with voting patterns. For example, the researchers found that the type of vehicles most strongly associated with Republican voting districts are extended-cab pickup trucks.

While this particular finding may not surprise you, the underlying work represents a programmatic tour de force, because artificial intelligence software was used to identify and classify the vehicles found in these 50 million images. The researchers used automotive experts to identify specific makes and models of cars from the images, giving the software a basis for training itself to find and identify vehicles all by itself, regardless of the angle of the photo, shadows and a host of other factors that make this anything but an easy task.

This project is believed to represent that first time that images have been used on a large scale to develop data. And while this image identification is a technically impressive example of both artificial intelligence and Big Data, most of the really useful insights come from associating the finding with other datasets, what I like to refer to as Little Data.

Think about it. The artificial intelligence software is given as input an image, and the ZIP code associated with that image. The software identifies an automobile make and model from the image, and creates an output record with two elements: the ZIP code and a normalized make and model description of the automobile. With this, you can explore auto ownership patterns by geography. But with just a few more steps, you can go a lot further.

You can use “little data” government and private datasets to link ZIP code to voting districts and thus voting patterns. With this information, you can determine that people living in Republican districts prefer extended-cab pickup trucks.

You can also use the ZIP code in the record to link to “little data” Census demographic data summarized at ZIP level. With this, you can correlate car ownership patterns to such things as income, race, education and ethnicity. Indeed, the study found it could predict demographics and voting patterns based on auto ownership.

And you can go further. You can link your normalized automobile make and model data to “little data” datasets of automobile technical specifications which is how the study determined, for example, that based on miles per gallon, Burlington, Vermont is the greenest city in the United States.

Using artificial intelligence on a Big Data image database to build a normalized text database is impressive. But all the real insights in this study could only be developed by linking Big Data to Little Data to allow for granular analysis.

While Big Data and artificial intelligence are getting all the breathless coverage, we should never forget that Little Data is what’s providing the real value behind the scenes.  

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