Throwing the spatial analysis ‘baby’ out with the big data ‘bathwater’

Three days at the splendidly organised Twelfth International Conference on GeoComputation (Wuhan, China, 23rd-25th May) have provided a welcome opportunity for intellectual refreshment in the company of old friends and colleagues. Nevertheless an irritating feature of the meeting has been the apparently endless queue of speakers with diverse national and intellectual backgrounds all wanting to wax ever more lyrically on the need for new technologies in order to squeeze the value from rapidly overflowing reservoirs of social and physical data at ever finer scales of spatial and temporal resolution.
I was reminded somewhat of the old-fashioned idea of ‘throwing the baby out with the bathwater’, a multi-layered expression which conveys the general idea of a failure to distinguish the worthwhile from the worthless. In short, I’d like to hear a little bit less about all the new things we can do with our latest empirical goodies, and a bit more about how this helps us to build on the things to which many of us have already devoted the best of our careers.
It concerns me that the discipline of GeoComputation has the potential to become too easily harnessed to superficial readings of the ‘fourth paradigm’ rhetoric in which analytical pursuits are emasculated by the succubus of inductive reasoning. Quantitative geographers have been wrestling for the last sixty years with problems involving the generalisation and analytic representation of spatial problems. Social scientists could legitimately trace similar concerns back to Chicago in the 1920s, if not to scholars of the nineteenth century such as Ravenstein or Charles Booth. Typically such enquiry has wrestled gamely with the issue of a severe deficiency in Vitamin D(ata).
I’d be amongst the last to deny the possibilities for new styles of analysis with virtualised or real-time data, and the importance of emerging patterns of spatial and personal behaviour associated with new technologies such as social media. But surely we need to do this at the same as staying true to our roots. The last thing we need to do is to abandon our traditional concerns with the theory of spatial analysis when we finally have the information we need to start designing and implementing proper tests of what it means to understand the world around us. Wouldn’t it be nice to see a few more models out there (recalling that a model is no more or less than a concrete representation of theory) in which new sources of data are being exploited to test, iterate and refine real ideas which ultimately lead to real insights, and perhaps even real solutions to real problems?