Good big data, bad big data

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Big data can do a lot for us, not all of it good. As the Internet of things comes online, technology can help us save energy, cure diseases and predict trends. But there is also worry that big data will be disproportionately controlled and used by governments and big corporations to the detriment of citizens, according to a new Pew Research Center report called The Future of Big Data.

“While enthusiasts see great potential for using big data, privacy advocates are worried as more and more data is collected about people — both as they knowingly disclose things … in postings through social media and as they unknowingly share digital details about themselves as they march through life,” according to the report, released Friday.

The researchers asked which of two scenarios is more likely. The first is one in which big data converges in a largely positive way that means

human and machine analysis of large data sets will improve social, political, and economic intelligence by 2020. [It will] facilitate things like ‘nowcasting’ or real-time forecasting of events, the development of ‘inferential software’ that  assesses data patterns to project outcomes and the creation of algorithms for advanced correlations that enable new understanding of the world.”

Conversely, the other scenario posits that big data will

cause more problems than it solves by 2020. The existence of huge data sets for analysis will engender false confidence in our predictive powers and will lead many to make significant and hurtful mistakes. Moreover, misused by powerful people and institutions with selfish agendas who manipulate findings to make the case for what they want.

And the result was … pretty close. Fifty-three percent of those responding felt the first scenario was more likely; 39 percent went for the second option.

A sampling of responses:

Bryan Trogdon, a user-experience professional said:

The companies, government and organizations that are able to mine this resource will have an enormous advantage over those that don’t. With speed, agility and innovation determining the winners and losers, big data allows us to move from a mindset of ‘measure twice, cut once’ to one of ‘place small bets fast.

Brian Harvey, lecturer at the University of California-Berkeley wrote:

The collection of  information is going to benefit the rich at the expense of the poor. I suppose that for a few people that counts as a positive outcome, but your two choices should have been ‘will mostly benefit the rich’ or “will mostly benefit the poor rather than ‘good for society’ and ‘bad for society.’

Skimming this report, I can only think about the latest banking scandal in which bankers allegedly colluded to set LIBOR interest rates to suit their own ends. The concentration of big data and analytics capabilities in the hands of industry giants can be a frightening prospect.

The Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project working with Elon University surveyed  1,021 Internet experts and users recruited by email.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Kevin Krejci

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