In an age when the use of Big Data is becoming ever more sophisticated, we are rightly concerned about what big corporations and our big government knows about us. When the information collected is too large, changing too swiftly or too diverse, then new technologies being developed across the world come into their own. We all know that store cards enable the retailer to target us with specific offers that are designed to fit our preferences. But now Google can even detect and track the emergence of disease outbreaks from social media signals. It seems ordinary life is the subject of scrutiny from Big Brother!
But Big Data is not a new concept. Back in 1937, a group of people designed an ‘anthology of ourselves.’ They recruited a team of observers and a panel of volunteer writers to study the everyday lives of ordinary people in Britain. The volunteers received questionnaires about different aspects of life and the observers went out to record in detail ordinary social settings. They became Mass Observation, a social research organisation that lasts to today. In 1939 they published a Penguin Special: Britain by Mass Observation. Throughout the 1940s, a series of publications followed detailing different aspects of the lives of ordinary Britons. In 1970, the Archive was opened as a public resource for historical research at the University of Sussex.
Recording ordinary lives
Today the Mass Observation Project (MOP) has 500 volunteers who respond in anonymity and so with candour to open-ended questions put to them by mail or email three-times a year. The ‘Directives’ contain two or three broad themes that cover both very personal issues and wider political and social issues and events. The results are incredibly varied and revealing. They comprise opinion and experience of everyday life in the form of stories, memoirs, lists, letters, diagrams, drawings, maps, diaries, photographs, press cuttings, confessions, reports on people, places and events, across a wide variety of topics.
The MOP has taken another step in resurrecting a call first sent out on 12 May 1937, the day of King George VI’s Coronation. Then – and again each year – the Project asked anyone willing to help out to submit their diary for that day to a national archive to be studied by all sorts of people such as academics and students, schools, writers, producers, artists, community and special interest groups and the general public. So today the MOP is asking ordinary people to record their lives from when they wake up in the morning to when they go to sleep at night on 12th May 2015 and send them in for study.
Making sense of the crowd
The revealing thing about Big Data is of course the way in which patterns can now be found in seemingly random data points. Algorithms and statistical tricks can uncover realities of which we are not aware in our behaviour particularly when acting en masse. The impact of mass observation such as this Project on our awareness of the past has been profound; it will of course only become more powerful as we collect still more detailed digital information about our travel, shopping or views. The simple act of recording a day a year offers us a vast wealth of insights into our shared and unique lives.
If you want to take part you can find all the details at Mass Observation. In summary, the diary needs to be in electronic form – Word or pdf by preference. They need to be anonymised but accompanied by a simple self-portrait in words. If 12 May 2015 turns out to exceptional, you are asked to note that and explain what was distinctive; if it’s just another day, then explaining that too is helpful to researchers. And then you need to add a simple statement passing rights over your text to the Project. Diaries are welcome from school children, from community groups or other organisations. You can download a pack of information about the Project from their website.