Recap: Promises and Pitfalls in the Age of Big Data
April 14, 2014 | 2024 views
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I’m astonished at how quickly big data has gone from an idea to meme to cliché says Larry Brilliant as he opens up the discussion on ‘digital equity and individual rights in the age of big data’. When we differentiate big data from the averagely sized, we talk about Google’s databases on global search or Facebook’s data on social networks. It is awe-inspiring in it’s potential to shed light on the evolution of pandemics, consumption patterns and human social behaviour. It promises fascinating utility for mankind, but a fair few dangers too. And its confusing, populating a bewildering confluence of privacy law, espionage, cyber warfare, corporate data mining, cross boarder storage and flows of digital information.
Those who control the data are private corporations and organisations and governments high and low. Even if a lot of this data, especially of the utility promising sort, originates from us as individuals, gathered from the proceedings of everyday life as we go about it, we don’t control much of it as individuals. We may own some of it, and some of it we can influence but for all intents and purposes, our data is gathered everyday and used for a multitude of purposes whether we like it, know it or consent. Much of the time that is probably good, sometimes not. Many like to make principled or judicial arguments one way or the other. What we can be sure of is that how data is controlled and how it is used, does matter.
Mr Brilliant offers an observation from the early days of the internet – ’the invention of the personal computer democratized information. And the information in those days had the charming quality of anonymity. You couldn’t tell who created the data but it was available to everyone. This meant power was decentralised from the mainframe priests of the early computer age. ‘ Information anonymity seems almost quaint these days where ‘gen y’ digital footprints are reaching far beyond the erasable. Our lives and our identities are being firmly manifested in the data we now leverage as infrastructure for our everyday lives. ‘And if it is truly to be seen as infrastructure…’, asks Jim Fruchterman, ‘…then shouldn’t we give it to the government to manage and control, for utility and safeguarding?’ Is that the ultimate democracy over data, where we actively choose its governance? Is it possible, with the decentralised and fungible nature of the beast? The US governments assertion of control over big data for the purposes of national security knew neither democratic governance nor much common sense.
The crux of the question is ‘what does the right level of protection look like without rendering data useless behind organisational, legal and infrastructural barriers?’ says Miguel Luengo Oroz.
We might be able to provide early signs for pandemics, social upheaval, conflict, natural disasters. We could be able to leverage the wisdom of crowds, provide pinpointed emergency relief, prevent terrorism and strengthen research across natural and social sciences by orders or magnitude. But we could also endanger marginalised and persecuted groups and individuals, harm and expose them and their private lives, crash financial markets and make terrible collective decisions based on trusting black boxes of algorithmic decision making. Data is powerful, that which gets measured gets done.
In uneducated fright over the explosion of data and its significance for the human condition, politicians grasp for control as if trying to trap the air, suggesting remedy in balkanization of the internet, for example. This with the sole guaranteed result of limiting the potential for positive use of data while scarcely mitigating the risks.
Like it or not, data is a medium that permeates our lives, and while the powers that be pontificate over its future, we might as well make the most of it. So how could social innovation leverage data to increase breadth and depth of impact? Well, governments are still semi-open and can be lobbied to release data on social issues and conditions. Meta data can be sufficiently useful to spot patterns and build hypotheses without endangering privacy. The mobile revolution means we are only an ask away from millions of opinions and observations on the ground all around us as well as in the most inaccessible corners of the world. The availability of data and technologies to create, analyze and communicate it is a fundamental revolution in reduced transaction costs and lowered entry barriers for all manner of processes. The age of social initiatives as processes of people rooming the world in the name of doing good now needs to be weighed against the potential of data and technology to improve efficiency and reduce cost of such initiatives. It also raises the hygiene level for human capital requirements in social sectors where data will be key to driving impact. A final warning from Ken Cukier however, that organisations that work with exposed demographics need to carefully reflect on and manage personal information they gather and control to safeguard against accidental or malicious exposure.