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Oec. Magazin 2

Big Battles with Big Data Big data is one of the most stimulating subjects occupying researchers across a vast variety of academic disciplines.But,as René Algesheimer and Abraham Bernstein note, while opening the door to immense possibilities,it also carries heavy responsibilities and moral choices.Haig Simonian In principle, René Algesheimer and Abraham Bernstein should work apart. The former is Professor of Marketing and Market Research, a trained mathematician whose penchant for ap- plied research led him into predictive analytics. The latter is Professor of Informatics, a born and bred Zurich native who studied computer science and psychology before specialising in information technology. But so overwhelming is the reach now of big data that the 41 year old German, a professor at UZH since 2009, and the 45 year old Swiss, a pro- fessor since 2008, expect to be seeing much more of each other. Last year, Algesheimer was ap- pointed to head a University Research Priority Programme on «Social Networks». The URPP is a once every 12 year opportunity for the univer- sity to identify fields warranting extra research and resources. In the case of social networks, that has opened the door to unusually intense co-ope- ration, not only between different disciplines, but also within individual faculties, in this case, eco- nomics. «Social networks take in economics, mathe- matics, psychology, sociology, computer science and management» explains Algesheimer. «The two of us are looking at similar problems», adds Bernstein. «We’ve already started with shared PhD courses. But don’t forget, our venture only began in 2013, so we’ve barely begun. We’ll defi- nitely be doing more together, that’s the plan.» Zurich’s special role Is the University of Zurich particularly sensi- tive to big data, I ask, thinking of Switzerland’s decades long tradition of bank secrecy and the country’s emphasis on protecting privacy in ge- neral - both suggesting a potential trickle down from society to academia? «There’s an increasing consciousness in the scientific community in general that data is ever more important. The same applies to univer- sities. What’s unusual here is that we have a relatively large number of people in separate dis- ciplines who’re all individually at the forefront of using big data – in astrophysics, sociology, psychology or whatever. In some of these fields, we are definitely among the leaders», explains Bernstein. His own speciality, for example, is on analy- sing «graphs» – not the lines on paper famili- ar even to schoolchildren, but the technical term for complex social networks, and a key research theme in big data. «The advantage we have over, say, a purely technical university is that we have all these different disciplines under one roof», adds Algesheimer. «There are other seats of lear- ning, in Europe and the world, with similar inte- rests. But we are one of the few with this breadth and diversity.» A focus on networks The research is extremely complex. Put most simply, it involves examining «networks» - indi- vidual relationships; families, companies and so on, their interconnections and interactions, and seeks to draw predictive conclusions. Classical economic theory works on the basis that individuals are independent of each other. The two Zurich professors are relaxing those strong assumptions because they’re not always realistic. «Because we as individuals depend on each other, the traditional models don’t always work. There are all kinds of things that interact with our decisions and influence our lives», elu- cidates Algesheimer. «Call it social predictive analysis.» Oec. Dezember 2014 13 Fokus Oec. Dezember 201413