THERE ARE AT LEAST TWO SIDES TO EVERY STORY

The Perspective on Big Data

By Kira Goldring
 Getty Images: Morris MacMatzen
Our lives have become increasingly reliant on technology; almost everything we do leaves a digital footprint. Facebook remembers what we like; Google Maps tracks where we’ve been; smart fridges 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 questions have since arisen: Is Big Data being used for good? What are the future implications for our privacy and our consumerism?
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. For example, 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.

 

Wising up

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.

 

Better business

Industry benefits greatly from Big Data, which gives companies insight into their customer base. Data allows companies to better understand their clientele and improve upon their services as a result. Take Israeli startup Nexar, which has created an AI-based dashcam app to monitor road safety by detecting accidents and road conditions. Then it sends real-time alerts to other vehicles on its network. The firm’s services, using Big Data, are aimed at helping drivers avoid accidents. Its tech is also for insurance companies to use for collision reconstructions to aid in claim investigations.

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. Big Data makes it easy for evidence to be distorted, allowing any company to push their own agenda, regardless of reputability. 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 20% 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.

 

Overrated

Ninety percent 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. Our daily experiences show us just how limited Big Data can be. For instance, you may get repeated Airbnb ads a month after you’ve closed the deal, or your daughter may get a shaving cream ad because she happens to watch her cartoons on your YouTube account. Without proper analytics, Big Data is effectively useless.

 

Bottom line: There’s no doubt of the advantages Big Data brings to the corporate 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?

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