The White House is going to study big data. Here are 5 things it should know

White House at night

The White House announced via blog post on Thursday that it’s forming working group focused on understanding the promises and pitfalls of big data (with a heavy emphasis on privacy, apparently) and how they might affect government policy. Good luck.

However anyone wants to define it, big data is an incredibly complex topic. In part, that’s because it’s not so much a technology as it is the result of improvements and advances in collecting, storing and processing data across the technological landscape. Add to that the fact that terms like data, privacy and even big can mean very different things depending on the context in which they’re used — and that the big data cat is already about five years out of the bag — and you have a messy situation.

Here are five things the working group might consider as it sets out on its mission to wrap the White House’s head around big data.

1. Security isn’t privacy. No matter how tempted anybody is to lump data breaches at companies from Adobe to Target to big data, don’t. Whether they store too much of our data, or for too long, is a fair question, but they’re going to store some stuff. How to keep data out of the wrong hands is a technological question. How companies should be able to use data is a policy question.

2. Privacy comes with tradeoffs. There’s no need to rehash the national security versus privacy debate that has dominated the post-Snowden discussion on government data collection (or the CISPA discussion in 2012) but it’s worth remembering there are tradeoffs in the consumer world, too. It’s easy and sometimes right to fault companies for using our data in ways we don’t like but, especially online, there’s a necessary sacrifice between privacy and free services.

3. Big means nothing. In many cases, getting caught up about the volume of data collected or even the scope is a red herring. In fact, having too much data can be a problem if it overwhelms the systems or analysts working with it. What can be done at scale can also be done at a personal level, which is arguably more problematic. From GPS tracking of criminal suspects to facial recognition apps, from social media to fitness devices, there are just more ways than ever to collect and analyze however much data you need for the job.

Need proof? Check out former CIA CTO Gus Hunt talking at last year’s Structure Data conference about that agency’s challenge to keep up with the quantity of data now available.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=isH8j0MPu-Y&w=640&h=360]

4. Personal doesn’t mean what it used to. The scale of the internet, a reliance on services ranging from credit cards to Gmail, and the ease of collecting digital data has arguably changed the definitions of words like personal and public — especially in a legal context — which makes it really hard to figure out how laws apply. Just because it’s easier than ever to gather data about people, that doesn’t mean we should.

5. Data is the future of innovation. And the big elephant in the room is that every single regulation that affects data usage and collection could have significant effects on the future of the world. It sounds hyperbolic, but consider the advances that companies like Google, Microsoft and Facebook have had in areas like data processing, and how they’re already making their way into all sorts of fields. Our Structure Data conference in March will be a microcosm of this, featuring experts using data to transform everything from automobile design to economic forecasts, from education to socialization.

And we’re swimming in more data everyday as new sources emerge and new technologies come online to help turn old documents, like photos and video, into rich data sources. We’re on the cusp of major advances in fields like cognitive computing and artificial intelligence that could have bigger impacts than many people realize or want ot admit.

The White House (as well as Congress and the courts) do need to understand what big data is and what it means, but they also need to understand that big isn’t just a thing that can be encapsulated and dealt with. It’s everything.

Feature image courtesy of Flickr user Tom Lohdon.

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