THE BLOG

On Independence Day, Remember That The Meta Data Matters

President Barack Obama's 2014 speech on surveillance reform began with a reference to the "The Sons of Liberty" in Boston. If the spymasters of King George III had access to modern surveillance and network analysis techniques in 1776, they might have been able to tell his majesty exactly who to apprehend, preventing those very same Sons of Liberty from fomenting the American revolution that changed the course of human events some 11 score and 19 years ago.

If someone ever tells you that "it's just meta data," remind him or her of how the Redcoats could have used meta data to find Paul Revere and show them the network visualization below.

The animated GIF above was created by Alteryx, a California-based software company that makes a analytics platform, using data published online by programmer Kieran Healy in 2013. The original source for the data is an appendix in David Hackett Fischer's Paul Revere's Ride (Oxford University Press, 1995), which Healy digitized and used to the relevance of meta data to a pivotal historic event.

"We're seeing data and analytics become more present in everyday work lives and home lives," said George Mathew, president of Alteryx, in an interview. "What's fascinating is when you take data and apply better predictors and network analyses, you can have better outcomes in understanding the world around you."

Two centuries ago, it's fair to say that the British government would probably have regarded a "better outcome" as one that didn't result in losing the colonies to rebellion.

If the "Lobsterbacks" had had meta data from bulk surveillance programs and analytics platforms like Alteryx or Palantir to analyze it, Bostonians might be singing "God Save The Queen" this weekend as they watch the World Cup, instead of listening to the Pops play Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture on the banks of the Charles River.