Nov 16

Wearables, big data and traffic regulation

Wearables and traffic. Photo and drawing by K.Tatakis, November 2016

By: K. Tatakis

Big data could help citizens in numerous ways and it’s up to our phantasy to invent new uses. In this short post I will work on the subject of wearables, big data and traffic regulation, something very useful globally as urbanization advances rapidly at a global scale. Wearables with GPS geo-localization that will count the number of citizens waiting in a metro station platform could be meaningful to reduce human stress and delays. Such delays are the reason for many missing meetings as employees (and even employers) arrive often late at work due to such disturbances. Big data could give traffic controllers the opportunity to augment the frequency of metros’ in a particular metro rail line until demand from passengers to enter wagons drops. But it is not only trains and subways where such an idea could be used.

It could be used to count passengers in a particular airport or a particular airport desk, to count drivers willing to take a turn towards a big highway and so on (especially when connected with route plans that people have picked in their digital traffic advisor). That will resolve many of today’s problems citizens daily have in large urban areas all over the world, from Shanghai to New York.

A particular scan of data could even calculate the number of social media messages about high traffic in a particular area and thus to help who organizes the traffic to send more buses, taxis or trains to relieve a problem. In such a case an alert level could be set, when for example messages about traffic are more than 50 in a small neighborhood.

In a less developed country where people don’t have enough money to buy these new gadgets, SMS could be traced in order to inform if particular products are available in a small local market of a poor African country. Linnet Taylor and Ralph Schroeder open up very interesting questions about big data in one of their recent articles. They inform about the MIT’s “Billion Prices Project (Cavallo 2013 in Taylor and Schroeder 2015, p.504) which is a similar idea but at a much larger scale.

Will citizens be more willing to provide such data if they can immediately use the outputs of such a survey? I think yes. Where positive results of an action are immediate and more tangible, people will feed such initiatives with more data for their own good.

Many companies that provide GPS orientation programs provide updated information about traffic in big cities. What if all these could be transformed in an all – included program which will combine road, train and air traffic and that will really inform about traffic jams in order to avoid delays. Buying tickets and the opportunity to see tickets availability would make such a program far more desirable.

A big fear of today’s citizen in a big metropolitan area is sudden traffic chaos. I think that people are ready to accept less privacy when outcomes really help them immediately towards a better life quality.  Αfter all improving our lives is  a form of social change.




Social media, big data and development (Drawing by K. Tatakis, 2016)

A critical question is where data scan and elaboration will be done (Taylor & Schroeder, 2015, p.504). Let’s suppose that a heavy traffic jam hits Mombasa. Are local authorities ready to use such technologies or this will add new costs to the local economy, as technologies and scientists will have to be imported? The two scientists also inform about the dangers of a “top-down approach” ((Taylor & Schroeder, 2015, p.504), where questions (of data surveys) and needs are simply guided by officials both in national and international organizations and are not necessarily what people ask about.

Talking about the digital ethics and the digital concerns over big data was something very trendy during the last ten years. Can we talk about politicization of data in such a field, in a way similar to the one Taylor & Schroeder discuss about over other development issues (Taylor & Schroeder, 2015, p.506)?  My answer is yes, as decisions that will follow the use of these data (the decisions of traffic controllers for example will affect the lives of thousands of people). After all it is a political judgement what you consider high traffic in your polis (city) and the decision you make to inform others on social media. Speculation over the use of traffic control data could affect the elections in a large metropolitan area, if a candidate will blame the current mayor that she/he is not doing enough to press for more metro’s wagons in a particular line. But it will also affect private companies’ profits, positively or negatively.

Reviewing Taylor’s and Schroeder’s article, I can notice that one of the most important questions they pose is “what ‘development’ means to data scientists” (Taylor & Schroeder, 2015, p.508). How were they educated on development (both in class and from the environment they have lived) and how that will influence their choices?

They also pay attention to the fact that not all scientists gain allowance to use big data. They need prior reputation and good connections in order to gain such a permission. Thus only a small circle of scientists could end up on using big data (since big data is not always open data) and the rest will be constrained to do what is a small scale data research or a qualitative research(Taylor & Schroeder, 2015, p.510). The two scientists stay on “power and knowledge asymmetries” (Taylor & Schroeder, 2015, p.516) and insist on education of people about their rights (Taylor & Schroeder, 2015, p.516). When entering what I would call this new marvelous world, the world of big data, you have to take account of such complexities.



Taylor, Linnet & Schroeder, Ralph (2015). Is bigger better? The emergence of big data as a tool for international development policy, GeoJournal (2015) 80:503-518



Nov 16

Big data, privacy and ownership

Shahin Madjidian


Studying big data critically leads to several interesting topics which can be examined and developed. In a string of four blog posts this is exactly what I will do. The first post is perhaps the heaviest as it deals with ownership issues, democracy and whether or not big data can be seen as something revolutionary that will lead to social change.

I will start with a short analysis of the individual’s right to his/her data and then move on to the macro level – who owns the data, who can store it, analyze it or draw conclusions from it, and later act on them?


Today, most people in the world leave digital fingerprints as we go on about our businesses, whether we like it or not. This data gets stored and many times analyzed and acted upon by the actors who picked up the data in the first place. The data can be anonymized and used in a big data set where it is very difficult, or even outright impossible, to identify individuals, or it can be used to improve targeted commercial ads suited for a unique individual.

Privacy issues have been raised, especially as individuals have very few possibilities to reject the data collection. Spratt & Baker argue that algorithm transparency is important, as well as the fact that people should be allowed to know which data is stored on them and where. They suggest that “all individuals have the right to control their own personal data, and can choose to sell as much or as little of this as they like” (Spratt & Baker 2016:30). While this sounds laudable, there are several problems which are ignored. How will an individual get access to this data and where can s/he store it? What about situations when the individual requires money or are in other desperate situations and decide to sell data, doing a trade-off between short-term gain in favour of perhaps long-term exposure? Which population sectors in which countries may be most prone to do this?

In reality, as Spratt & Baker note, consumers may object to their personal data being bought and sold, but in reality have very little control over it once it has been collected (Spratt & Baker 2016:12). This leads us to the next section, namely who these holders of data are.

Ownership and “usership”

The main holders and owners of data today are big corporations, especially those in the social media and communication sectors, and government. Often, data collected from actions and events are used to create new forms of value in innovative ways, as “the system takes information generated for one purpose and re-uses it for another” (Mayer & Schönberger 2013:97, 103). The trick is in finding secondary usage of the data and as a result, hidden correlations which may turn out to be highly valuable. Related to the privacy issue, it is very difficult to prohibit something that has not yet happened, to prohibit uses of data which the data owners have not previously thought about.

Read et al. argue that “if the power of initiative, design, funding and analysis still resides with the tech-savvy individuals and organisations based in the global North, then it is difficult to concur with the view that technology is empowering or liberating” (Read, Taithe & MacGinty 2016:12).  This notion is amplified in the global South considering “the growth of private-sector involvement in public infrastructure projects across the globe” (Lovink & Zehle 2005:10), with infrastructure here broadly meaning Internet and cellphone development.

A few huge corporations have taken the lead in the use of big data and to remedy this, Spratt & Baker propose state support to startup companies within the field in order to learn and become more competitive (Spratt & Baker 2016:26).

Are there any possibilities of individuals becoming owners, analyzers and users of big data? Meier certainly believes so, and I will return to his book “Digital humanitarians” in a later post. For now, I will use his own words against him, as he writes that big data can easily turn into information overload and that the data coming in during one of his humanitarian efforts was simply too much for him and his hundreds of volunteer to handle (Meier 2015:4, 50, 52).

It is not only the vast amount of data that makes it difficult or impossible for individuals to use, but also its messiness and complexity. The data comes from different sources, in a wide variety of shape and form, many times unclear and fragmented. The technologies required means that big data use today is limited to a few actors. Individuals, or groups of individuals, are usually not among the lucky ones.

Mayer & Schönberger have a somewhat romantic view of the future development, believing that just like everyone with cell phones has the potential of being a “journalist” in the broad sense, everyone may be able to extract and analyze big data as “tools get better and easier to use” (Mayer & Schönberger 2013:134). It may not be necessary to be a statistician, engineer or software developer working for a government agency or Facebook.


While development may allow more people to become big data users, today’s actors will have a huge head start. Furthermore, Mayer & Schönberger predict that data owners will increasingly be in the most lucrative position in the future (Mayer & Schönberger 2013:134) and as long as the privacy laws are not changed, the data owners will be social media and communication corporations, not individual citizens.

I agree with the somewhat glum view of “although cloaked in an the language of empowerment, data technology may be based on an ersatz participative logic in which local communities feed data into the machine /…/ but have little leverage on the design or deployment of the technology” (Read, Taithe & MacGinty 2016:11).

In many ways, big data is revolutionary and holds great possibilities for humankind, but used within today’s societal and economic logic, it is but a furthering and strengthening of the status quo, with little to none possibility of empowering individuals or inciting social change.


Lovink, G. & Zehle, S. (eds.) 2005: The Incommunicado Reader. Amsterdam: Institute of Network Cultures

Mayer-Schönberger, V., Cukier, K. 2013: Big Data: A Revolution That Will Transform How We Live, Work, and Think. London: John Murray Publishers.

Meier, P. 2015: Digital Humanitarians: How BIG DATA Is Changing the Face of Humanitarian Response. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press.

Read, R., Taithe, B., MacGinty, R. 2016: Data hubris? Humanitarian information systems and the mirage of technology, Third World Quarterly, forthcoming

Spratt, S, & Baker, J. 2016: Big Data and International Development: Impacts, Scenarios and Policy Options. Brighton: IDS.

Featuring WPMU Bloglist Widget by YD WordPress Developer