Big Data: from an omnipresent servant to an omnipotent master?

By Athanasia K.

Not so far ago, just in 1995, less than 1% of the Earth’s population were using internet, whereas today more than 40% has access to internet according to internet live stats. This number is constantly increasing and the broader and broader use of mobile phones, social networks, RFID tags, geolocation systems or interconnected personal or public monitoring systems (see also the internet of things for a glimpse into the future) all add to the omnipresence of information and communications’ technology (ICT) in our lives.

This exponentially fast rate of new ICT developments brings the average citizen also exponentially faster in front of new realities. New “tech” services, products words and jargon enter our lives on a daily basis and quickly become part of our reality, as if we were always twittering our news, using satellites to find our way to the supermarket, or instantly send ing pictures of our new-born cat to all known and unknown online “friends” of ours.

And if we consider that all these IT activities leave digital traces, the volume of the IT data and traces which are produced globally on a daily basis are almost impossible to conceive for our human brain. These pieces of data as single points of information might be insignificant. However, as compiled sets of data are more and more valuable for exploitation. As Boyd and Crawford note, the value comes from the patterns that can be derived from making connections between pieces of data, about an individual in relation to others, about groups of people, or simply about the structure of information itself.

This is where another jargon phrase is entering our lives: “Big Data”. This is a term which is not clearly defined, but is used to broadly describe a result of this exponential/massive increase of data gathering, their storage and their analysis capabilities as Hilbert notes in his paper.

ICT gurus and bloggers see Big Data as the new promise land which will bring innovative solutions to almost every problem in our human societies. From our personal daily routines, to innovative solutions for decision making in national and international development policies, there is something for all in the Big Data universe which promises to make things easier, cheaper, more efficient and reliable. Furthermore, milestone IT companies are aggressively promoting the use of Big Data as a tool for the benefit of our society, and which would in parallel also open new markets for the company, as the perfect win-win situation.

But is this a true wonderland?

One important concern is that Big Data is not necessarily open data. On the contrary, more and more companies are doing business in buying and selling databases of personal information, including consumer preferences and behaviour in social networks. A practice which poses considerable concerns on transparency of the transactions, respect of privacy of the data subjects, as well as about the ownership of personal data and their exploitation. This is more valid in particular for the health sector, where in black markets  medical record information is reported to be considered as more valuable information for identity theft than stolen credit card numbers are.

Furthermore, Big Data is not necessarily better data and there is a high risk of what is called “GIGO” in data analysis, that is: “garbage in-garbage out”. As Stefaan Verhulst of Markle Foundation reportedly said: “perhapsless is more” in many instances, because more data collection doesn’t mean more knowledge. It actually means much more confusion, false positives and so on. The challenge is for data holders to become more constrained in what they collect.

Big Data also is not necessarily more cost-efficient either, not at least for the less developed countries who cannot afford the necessary infrastructure, neither have adequately trained data specialists and analysts to support Big Data activities, as Hilbert notes. And here it comes the question of who really benefits from this new exciting technological opportunity?

Scholars such as Hilbert have raised concerns about a risk of widening the gap in the digital division between developed and developing countries. In addition, Rudan et al have argued for the need to develop infrastructure and personnel capacity in poorer countries and several promising activities are moving into that direction. However, the reality so far is that the challenges for a fair application of the Big Data revolution are far from resolved, as also outlined earlier in this blog by Shahin. This is in particular true for the health sector, on which I will focus in my forthcoming post.

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