‘Big Data’ Is Bunk, Obama Campaign’s Tech Guru Tells University Leaders


Harper Reed (Photo by Zbigniew Bzdak, Chicago Tribune)

New York — Lots of college leaders and technologists are gathered in Lower Manhattan this week for a State University of New York-sponsored conference about all the great things “Big Data” can do for higher education.

Harper Reed, who served as chief technology officer in President Obama’s 2012 campaign, offered those people what he jokingly called “an intervention.”

“Big Data is bullshit,” Mr. Reed said in a keynote speech on Tuesday.

Mr. Reed is generally bullish on the power of data. He took the audience through a litany of ways in which President Obama used data to win re-election, such as scraping supporters’ Facebook information to blast out personalized email messages.

But, with apologies to the technology companies sponsoring the SUNY event, Mr. Reed skewered their industry’s promotion of the buzzwords “Big Data.”

“The ‘big’ there is purely marketing,” Mr. Reed said. “This is all fear … This is about you buying big expensive servers and whatnot.”

“The exciting thing is you can get a lot of this stuff done just in Excel,” he said. “You don’t need these big platforms. You don’t need all this big fancy stuff. If anyone says ‘big’ in front of it, you should look at them very skeptically … You can tell charlatans when they say ‘big’ in front of everything.”

That wasn’t the only provocation the audience heard from Mr. Reed, 35, whose unruly red beard, blue sweatshirt, and dangling earrings stood out in a ballroom full of dark suits. (Nor was it the first time he had made mischief with the “bullshit” zinger, according to earlier headlines like “Big Data is bovine excrement says Obama’s Big Data man.”)

During another session, “Data Scientist: the Sexiest Job of the 21st Century,” Mr. Reed argued that “data scientist as a profession is largely a fad.”

Asked a question about undergraduate education, Mr. Reed struggled to answer. When it comes to hiring, he said, undergraduate education generally “does not matter.”

“I usually hire people who have very exemplary work experience,” said Mr. Reed, who now runs a Chicago-based start-up company devoted to mobile commerce. “Where they went to school, or what degree they have, really has no play into the hiring decision. Myself, I have a philosophy degree and a fake computer-science degree. I say fake because I really didn’t learn anything.”

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