Our lives have become increasingly reliant on technology; almost everything we do leaves a digital footprint. Facebook and Amazon, among others, remember what we like; Google Maps tracks where we’ve been. Even smart fridges can assess the contents of our kitchen – and let our grocers know which vegetables we need. All of this data is gathered and stored, resulting in what we know as Big Data.
This data is constantly analyzed to help inform anything from healthcare decisions to targeted advertisements. The ultimate question has since arisen: Is Big Data being used for good? While Big Data has definitely had a hand in helping to understand COVID-19 and combat its spread, we still need to consider the future implications of Big Data on our privacy and our consumerism. The latter is especially relevant given the 2020 findings about Amazon misusing its superior access to data for its own competitive advantage.
Here are three reasons to favor Big Data can do for us, and three reasons to be wary of its consequences.
Big Data, Big Payoff
Rapid expansion of research
Data capture in real time broadens the scope of medical research through analysis of multiple demographics and populations. Before COVID-19, Brazilian researchers analyzed scores of data supplied by Twitter, Wikipedia and Google Trends, and were able to successfully predict the outbreak of dengue fever in several cities. Other patterns were similarly detected in Google and Twitter search data, allowing a team of epidemiologists to determine where Zika would spread in Latin America, several weeks before public-health officials declared a formal outbreak of the virus. Additionally, Big Data has facilitated research into efficient treatment options for cancer and Ebola. But let’s not forget the environmental impact: Sensors (both in space and on the ground) recording information about everything from water quality to weather are providing enough data to help us understand climate change, with global warming trends at the forefront of analysis.
More recently, during the COVID-19 pandemic, it became clear rather quickly how live data collection could serve governments, first responders, and hospitals with vital information about the virus itself and those affected by it as well as provide research to help them more efficiently allocate monetary and medical resources to help deal with the pandemic. Not to mention, contract tracing based on Big Data has also significantly helped mitigate the spread – not just for COVID but also for monkeypox.
Big Data is making smart societies a reality. Institutions like MIT are using Big Data analyses to build “smart cities” that will ultimately help reduce living costs, energy consumption and harmful environmental emissions, and generally improve quality of life. Los Angeles is replacing thousands of traffic lights with LEDs, which will create a system informing the city of every light’s status at all times. This will ultimately result in brighter streets, in addition to preventing traffic accidents that arise when traffic lights malfunction. Saudi Arabia is using Big Data for adequate crowd control to prevent stampedes among the millions of Muslim worshippers who embark on an annual pilgrimage to Mecca. This is done by utilizing real-time insights to predict crowd movements and avoid congestion. Big Data is paving the way for more efficient lifestyles; the more we collect, the smarter we become.
Industry benefits greatly from Big Data, which gives companies insight into their customer base. This is especially true for the healthcare industry today, amid COVID-19, where Big Data is providing vital insights into disease prevention efforts. Data allows companies to better understand their clientele and improve upon their services as a result. Internally, corporate insight and employee productivity and satisfaction can also be improved by analyzing workplace interactions and using the results to optimize work environments. For instance, Bank of America used sensors to track social dynamics in the office, and found that their best workers were ones who took breaks together. This resulted in group break policies, which saw a 23% rise in employee performance.
Data the Devil
Can’t trust anyone
From the media to the government, the misuse of Big Data has allowed for abolition of trust in almost every fundamental institution holding up society. You’ll hear it everywhere: Privacy is all but dead. It’s all but impossible to prevent today’s big tech companies from tracking our data and misusing it, as the 2020 tech antitrust Congressional hearing with Facebook, Amazon, Google and Apple before showed. As Jeff Bezos’s hearing revealed, besides misuing data to create unlevel playing fields, Big Data also makes it easy for evidence to be distorted, allowing any company to push their own agenda, regardless of reputability.
Additionally, in 2016, Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica scandal opened the eyes of many to how easily they could be targeted and their information compromised without their knowledge. Governments like China have used Big Data its new social credit system will store people’s information and use it to monitor and ultimately control their behavior. Over 6 million Chinese citizens have already been blacklisted from flying, as a consequence of social misdeeds. Thanks to Big Data, it’s impossible to stop vast amounts of personal and professional information from being exploited.
Restricted to the wealthy
Big Data is too large for the average person to analyze on his own; it requires advanced technological tools that many simply don’t have. This limits Big Data access to the financially fortunate, which generally privileges large, wealthy institutions over small businesses or individual people. Aside from the unfair economic disadvantage, Big Data fosters divisive lines between social classes. Roughly 7% of Americans aren’t online, and people from lower income levels don’t leave nearly as big a digital footprint as their wealthier counterparts. This means that when researchers or journalists rely on web-generated content (like social media or Google searches) for Big Data analyses, those without an online presence tend to have their own issues ignored. In other words, Big Data only benefits the people who are rich enough to control it.
At least 90% of the data in the world today has been created in the last two years alone – exciting, right? Yet, our ability to draw conclusions from said data (referred to as actionable insights) haven’t developed at the same accelerated speed. Therefore, an excessive amount of data can be just as confusing as having none at all. Nobel Laureate Ronald Coase said it best: “If you torture the data long enough, it will confess to anything.”
Let’s also look at ad targeting, the most common use of data technology. While there are constant developments, our daily experiences may include instances that show that Big Data can still be limited. Like when your daughter may get a shaving cream ad because she happens to watch her cartoons on your YouTube account. Without the proper analytics, Big Data is less effective.
The Bottom Line: There’s no doubt of the advantages Big Data brings to the corporate, medical and scientific worlds; yet, in the wrong hands, it can compromise personal and professional information to an alarming degree. Does Big Data enhance or detract from your life?