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Paradata

Hanan Cohen points me to a blog post by a MLIS student at Haifa U., named Shir, in which she discourses on the term “paradata.” Shir cites Mark Sample who in 2011 posted a talk he had given at an academic conference, Mark notes the term’s original meaning:

In the social sciences, paradata refers to data about the data collection process itself—say the date or time of a survey, or other information about how a survey was conducted.

Mark intends to give it another meaning, without claiming to have worked it out fully. :

…paradata is metadata at a threshold, or paraphrasing Genette, data that exists in a zone between metadata and not metadata. At the same time, in many cases it’s data that’s so flawed, so imperfect that it actually tells us more than compliant, well-structured metadata does.

His example is We Feel Fine, a collection of tens of thousands (or more … I can’t open the site because Amtrak blocks access to what it intuits might be intensive multimedia) of sentences that begin “I feel” from many, many blogs. We Feel Fine then displays the stats in interesting visualizations. Mark writes:

…clicking the Age visualizations tells us that 1,223 (of the most recent 1,500) feelings have no age information attached to them. Similarly, the Location visualization draws attention to the large number of blog posts that lack any metadata regarding their location.

Unlike many other massive datamining projects, say, Google’s Ngram Viewer, We Feel Fine turns its missing metadata into a new source of information. In a kind of playful return of the repressed, the missing metadata is colorfully highlighted—it becomes paradata. The null set finds representation in We Feel Fine.

So, that’s one sense of paradata. But later Mark makes it clear (I think) that We Feel Fine presents paradata in a broader sense: it is sloppy in its data collection. It strips out HTML formatting, which can contain information about the intensity or quality of the statements of feeling the project records. It’s lazy in deciding which images from a target site it captures as relevant to the statement of feeling. Yet, Mark finds great value in We Feel Fine.

His first example, where the null set is itself metadata, seems unquestionably useful. It applies to any unbounded data set. For example, that no one chose answer A on a multiple choice test is not paradata, just as the fact that no one has checked out a particular item from a library is not paradata. But that no one used the word “maybe” in an essay test is paradata, as would be the fact that no one has checked out books in Aramaic and Klingon in one bundle. Getting a zero in a metadata category is not paradata; getting a null in a category that had not been anticipated is paradata. Paradata should therefore include which metadata categories are missing from a schema. E.g., that Dublin Core does not have a field devoted to reincarnation says something about the fact that it was not developed by Tibetans.

But I don’t think that’s at the heart of what Mark means by paradata. Rather, the appearance of the null set is just one benefit of considering paradata. Indeed, I think I’d call this “implicit metadata” or “derived metadata,” not “paradata.”

The fuller sense of paradata Mark suggests — “data that exists in a zone between metadata and not metadata” — is both useful and, as he cheerfully acknowleges, “a big mess.” It immediately raises questions about the differences between paradata and pseudodata: if We Feel Fine were being sloppy without intending to be, and if it were presenting its “findings” as rigorously refined data at, say, the biennial meeting of the Society for Textual Analysis, I don’t think Mark would be happy to call it paradata.

Mark concludes his talk by pointing at four positive characteristics of the We Feel Fine site:? It’s inviting, paradata, open, and juicy. (“Juicy” means that there’s lots going on and lots to engage you.) It seems to me that the site’s only an example of paradata because of the other three. If it were a jargon-filled, pompous site making claims to academic rigor, the paradata would be pseudodata.

This isn’t an objection or a criticism. In fact, it’s the opposite. Mark’s post, which is based on a talk that he gave at the Society for Textual Analysis, is a plea for research thatis inviting, open, juicy, and is willing to acknowledge that its ideas are unfinished. Mark’s post is, of course, paradata.

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