(Big) Data’s Entry Into Our Lives: Should We Worry?

In my previous post I talked about why it is important to be counted (link). With the story in the beginning, the post also touched upon the skepticism towards being counted. In this blog, we have discussed some of the negative sides of big data in development and what impact data and social media can have in democratic processes, in terms of data justice. Here, I will reflect on the inevitability of data in our everyday lives. Does it only have good sides? Can we trust that information about ourselves will not get misused? Are we being surveilled and should we be skeptical?

As we have pointed out in our previous post on this blog, it becomes more and more difficult to resist the effects that technology has on our lives, in terms of for example the marketing on social media such as Facebook that bases on data produced from our use of internet. As users of various apps on our phones, «we» (at least the younger users of these apps) have almost stopped worrying about the information that the apps ask us to give in order to fullfill their function properly: information about our current location, our phone number, our photos on Facebook or on our phone, etc. Correct me if I’m wrong, but the user of the app will often provide this information to make the app work as well as possible.

Another example before we go on: I recently read an acticle in the Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten about how Estonia has digitalised 99 % of its public services, based on a digital infrastructure called X-road. Estonia has introduced services such as e-Voting, e-Health (digitalised medical journals), e-Tax, e-School and e-Residency, to name a few. Estonia has become a leading country in digital innovation, and according to the e-Estonia website, Estonian digital solutions have been exported to 35 countries. Estonia now holds the presidency of the Council of the European Union, and has pronounced that its «first priority will be to put free flow of data across borders on the agenda» (Braathen, 2017, p. 26).

An Estonian e-Residency card. Photo: Masayuki Kawagishi

These are examples of the fact that data-producing technologies are an inevitable part of life in the 21st century, and trying to resist it might be seen as going back in time in terms of technological development. What is the point, then, to dwell upon the potential negative effects of them?

My first immediate answer will be: because they are an inevitable part of our lives, and because data, and big data, could bring along reasons to be skeptical. Estonia’s e-Residency service has been criticised for potentially attracting criminals who might misuse the system to avoid punishment by operating via Estonia (ibid). Also according to the article in Aftenposten, Estonia’s different public agencies’ websites as well as the president’s website were hacked in 2007. However, according to the article, there has been no cases of misuse of e-Residency so far, and the cyber attack was successfully stopped and followed by the establishment of the NATO Cooperative Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence in Tallinn.

In his book «Digital Humanitarians», Meier addresses the problem of false data in social media and its effect on humanitarian work. Using examples from aid work after the earthquakes in Haiti and Chile in 2010, Meier shows how «as a result of false information, urgent humanitarian aid could be allocated to the wrong area, for example, which could result in wasted time and resources; at worst, it could cost lives» (Meier, 2015, p. 33). Other examples are fake photographs of the hurricane Sandy in 2012 and false information on Twitter about the White House being attacked in 2013. (Meier, 2015, p. 34). But, as Meier shows, information from social media can be verified using tools such as for example crowd computing and artificial intelligence. This does not solve all the problems, but the examples show that advanced tools for facing these challenges have been developed.

Should we be worried, then? In terms of our own privacy, we should at least be conscious of how we use technology and social media and what information we provide about ourselves. Technological infrastructures such as the Estonian one has proven to be safe, although some «threats» against it have occured.

As Spratt and Baker conclude, big data will continue to have a large impact, and it will vary from country to country how they make use of the data. Big data definitely implies risks, but they will be more «acute» in some countries than in others (Spratt and Baker, 2016, p. 33). To secure that the benefits of big data will apply in both developing and developed countries, a framework «that protects people’s rights but also gives them the confidence to share the data that are needed for these benefits to be realised» is needed. Giving individuals, communities and societies access to and control over their own data is at the heart of this» (ibid). Hopefully, an aknowledgement of this need from research on big data should give us even less reason to worry.

References:

Braathen, F. (2017): Heldigitale Estland vil snu opp-ned på Europa: Hvordan klarte den lille eks-sovjetrepublikken å bli et av verdens mest digitaliserte samfunn? Article in Aftenposten A-Magasinet no. 41, 13th October 2017.

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

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

The Social Solutionism of Big Data

The Social Solutionism of Big Data
Image Source: Google

I recently came across an article about an experiment where the author tries to opt out of big data. Technological solutionism and big data can be an important factor in one’s every day activities. In fact, big data is already an integral part of our lives. Our always connected devices generate data every second logging our activity and unique personal preferences that we make online.

Furthermore, our online actions as consumers produce data which in its turn can be used in the process of predicting tendencies in human behavior. In the age of data and analytics, everything we do generates data. Always on technological devices, living creatures, everything can be explained through the means of data. And it looks like all of them can store and produce data as well . Perhaps one day we will be able to create, store and consume data by ourselves and for ourselves. It seems like data is one of the top words that will characterize our century. Or at least a good part of it.

The Inevitable Solutionism

In his “To Save Everything, Click Here”, Evgeny Morozov argues that the folly of the technological solutionism leads to a world where the power of algorithms eradicates imperfection. And where the rules imposed by the Silicon Valley shape our future (Morozov, 2013).

The author provides some examples for such a technological solutionism inspired by “Zuckerberg’s tyranny of the social”. There we find evidence that “activities get better when performed socially” (Morozov, 2013). The BinCam project which makes our bins “smarter” (by taking photos of what you just have thrown away), “more social” (by uploading these photos to your Facebook account) is one of these examples that promise to save our planet.

Another interesting example that Morozov gives is the prototype teapot. It  “either glow[s] green (making tea is okay) or red (perhaps you should wait)” (Morozov, 2013) the hardware of which “queries Britain’s national grid for aggregate power-usage statistics” (Morozov, 2013).

Algorithmization of Ethics?

But as Morozov suggests, nowhere in the “academic paper that accompanies the BinCam presentation do the researchers raise any doubts about the ethics of their undoubtedly well-meaning project” (Morozov, 2013). The situation is similar to the case of the teapot prototype where “social engineers have never had so many options at their disposal” (Morozov, 2013). He further argues that resolving complex social problems with the help of the right algorithm is more likely to cause unforeseen effects and repercussions that can generate “more damage than the problems they seek to address” (Morozov, 2013).

The more big data and analytics become integral part of our lives, the more difficult it is to refuse to let technology control simple daily activities. And doing your everyday tasks the old-fashioned way seems more complex and more impossible. Even a simple attempt to opt out from marketing detection (like using Tor for browsing Facebook or Twitter) can make your online activity look suspicious and illicit (Vertesi, 2014).

But as Morozov suggests, big data without any connections to social networks can do quite positive things too. He mentions the BigBelly Solar and its positive impact on cutting “garbage-collecting sorties from 17 to 2.5 times a week” in the city of Philadelphia and the Street Bump project where, thanks to motion detectors in smartphones, an app helps with reporting potholes on the streets of the city of Boston. In other words, people use data for good or bad purposes. And the path we choose depends on our shared vision of the future of our society.

References

Morozov, E. 2013: To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism, New York, NY: Public Affairs.

Vertesi, J. 2014, My Experiment Opting Out of Big Data Made Me Look Like a Criminal, Last Checked: 17/10/2017, Retrieved from: http://time.com/83200/privacy-internet-big-data-opt-out/

Is real democracy dead in the age of digital data and social media?

Brexit. The US Presidential elections. The annulled Kenyan elections. Three seemingly democratic processes.

The end result of each has come of a shock to the world. No-one expected Brexit. Hilary Clinton was basically assured of victory. Uhuru Kenyatta won in Kenya, with observers backing the outcome – until he didn’t, the results being declared null and void.

How much of a role did data and social media have to play in the results of each? And where is the data justice in this? With the current state of big data, social media and politics, is real democracy dead in the digital age?

It is now no secret that data manipulation and social media unduly influenced people – if not the outcome – in both the Brexit vote and the US presidential election. Adam Henhall writes “Michal Kosinski’s behavioral mapping techniques by British data analysis firm Cambridge Analytica impacted on the major electoral outcomes of 2016”, having “developed a method to analyze individuals in minute detail based on their Facebook activity.” (Henshall, 2017)

The Kenyan election is now under suspicion of also being unduly influenced (Dahir, 2017). British data firm Cambridge Analytica was hired or used in all three campaigns. The firm “mines both online data and individual psychometric profiles in order to personalize political messaging and communicate with both supporters and undecided voters”, and is partly owned by the Mercer family, who largely supports conservative candidates and causes. (Dahir, 2017)

In the UK, a recent poll has found that nearly half of those who voted ‘remain’ in the Brexit vote would have won the referendum if social media did not exist. In the same poll, half of people surveyed in the UK believe social media played an important role in Donald Trump’s election as United States president. (Singh, 2016)

Using social media and big data, the data firm and the respective campaigns had the possibility “to have an intimate knowledge of a huge number of people. The result of this knowledge? Facebook becomes a huge search engine, not just for people but types of people.” (Henshall, 2017)

So where is the data justice in this?

Linnet Taylor outlines three proposed pillars of a notion of data justice as being (in)visibility, (dis)engagement with technology and antidiscrimination. (Taylor, 2017)

She states that the “idea of data justice is necessary to determine ethical paths through a datafying world.” (Taylor, 2017) It’s an admirable and noble thought. One we should certainly aim for. But in reality – given the stakes involved with data and social media during elections and high-stakes referenda – is it feasible?

As we’ve seen, social media platforms like Facebook have played a huge – and controversial – role in shaping what media consumers see in their information feeds during election campaigns, based on the data that is mined in the lead up to them. The data produced by these platforms are inevitably linked, by one means or another, to firms like Cambridge Analytica, which in turn usually involves political links or influences through their owners. You could argue that families, companies and organisations that own media like television stations or newspapers often have overt or covert ties to political parties, usually by who they’re owned, and that those links often influence editorial decisions. However the difference here is that while it’s a personal choice on which newspaper you pick up or click on, or which television channel you switch on, social media platforms and their associated data firms are collecting data on you, the consumer, first in an attempt to then influence your decision. With this means, you as the media consumer are not necessarily being given a choice.

It’s the invisibility and disengagement with technology that Taylor writes of that is in doubt. As she writes:

How is it possible, though, to formulate principles of data justice without allowing them to be shaped by the global community of data producers? A vision of data justice that takes power and politics into account must necessarily also be rooted in local experience. (Taylor, 2017)

Perhaps it’s a case of aiming for the moon, to land amongst the stars if we fail. But is that good enough?

With the power and the influence of data and social media platforms, and the seeming tough challenge ahead of implementing proper means of data justice, is real democracy dead in the digital age?

Given powerful influencing factors behind these political processes, with three examples of earth-shatteringly unexpected political results to illustrate this, the answer could well be yes.

 

 

Works Cited

Dahir, A. L. (2017, September 19). Hillary Clinton says Kenya’s annulled election was a “project” of a controversial US data firm. Retrieved from Quartz Africa: https://qz.com/1081021/hillary-clinton-says-trump-linked-cambridge-analytica-had-role-in-kenyas-annulled-election/

Henshall, A. (2017, February 3). How Social Media and Big Data Shaped the Brexit Campaign Strategy . Retrieved from Business 2 Community: http://www.business2community.com/social-data/social-media-big-data-shaped-brexit-campaign-strategy-01770554#J4QP472LFoRqpyud.99

Singh, A. (2016, December 2). Brexit campaign would have failed before advent of social media, say remain voters in new poll. Retrieved from The Independent: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/brexit-social-media-new-poll-failed-remain-voters-a7450911.html

Taylor, L. (2017, February 16). What is data justice? The case for connection digital rights and freedoms on the global level. Forthcoming publication. Tilburg University.

Big Data and Its Impact on International Development

Big Data and Its Impact on International Development7
Image Source: Google

The term big data is used to describe an enormous volume of data which can be both structured and unstructured. And at the same time, this data is difficult to understand if using conventional information processing techniques (Wikipedia 2017, Big data).

Definitions of big data “vary by industries such as information technology (IT), computer science, marketing, social media, communication, data storage, analytics, and statistics” (Spratt and Baker, 2016, p. 8).

Big Data and Development

In terms of international development, big data provides important contributions in key development areas. These areas include resource management, economic productivity, health care, natural disaster, job market, etc. The analysis of online user-generated data provides opportunities for people from all over the world to have their voice heard.

In their research, Spratt and Baker argue that big data “will be the fuel that drives the next industrial revolution, radically reshaping economic structures, employment patterns and reaching into every aspect of economic and social life” (Spratt and Baker, 2016, p. 4). If in 1946 the first computers weighed thousands of kilograms and could do no more than 500 calculations per second, these days, the IBM Watson supercomputer can process 500 gigabytes per second. That is the equivalent of reading one million books per second.

However, as Spratt and Baker suggest, we should “distinguish big data from two related concepts: information and communications technology (ICT) and ‘open data’” (Spratt and Baker, 2016, p. 8). They argue that “big data is not always open, and at times will not be accessible without special skills or software” (Spratt and Baker, 2016, p. 8).

Big Data and Its Direct Impact on Development

As suggested by Spratt and Baker (2016), the potential impacts of big data can be classified as direct or indirect.

Directly, big data contributes to the process of creating new markets which are based on both production and consumption of data. Inevitably, this leads to the creation of a new complex physical infrastructure that is able to fully support the process of data production and consumption.

The three V’s of big data stimulated innovations in software, including data analysis, data management and networking. This allowed the creation of many now multi billion companies. Such companies had their start from open source projects such as Hadoop which was initially created to store and process huge amounts of data (Spratt and Baker, 2016, p. 8).

Thus, data science becomes a profession and data scientists combine “the skills of software programmer, statistician and storyteller/artist to extract the nuggets of gold hidden under mountains of data” (The Economist, 2010). Such employment opportunities require special qualification. And the demand for this special kind of knowledge creates these new employment opportunities.

In fact, these consequences have a great impact on developing countries. Many corporations outsource their data analysis departments to developing countries where computer skills are high and costs are low. And “skilled young adults in Uruguay will find themselves competing for certain types of jobs against their counterparts in Orange County” (MSNBC 2013). Amazon Mechanical Turk and Samasource (a non-profit business) are some of the organizations that promote the outsourcing of digital work to unemployed people around the world.

Big Data and Privacy

In terms of privacy, the buying and selling of data can create negative impacts as well. Once they collect the data, consumers are not in control of that data (Craig and Ludloff, 2011). And that’s an issue in both developed and developing countries.

Furthermore, issues like privacy and discrimination seem to be working in favor of the digital divide.  In fact, “while data-driven discrimination is advancing at exactly the same pace as data processing technologies, awareness and mechanisms for combating it are not” (Taylor, 2017, p.2). This contributes to various issues like online data privacy, transparency, (technological) inequality… (Wikipedia 2017, Big data). In this regard, Taylor draws a parallel between the idea of justice in general and the idea of data justice. We need data justice to “determine ethical paths through a datafying world” (Taylor 2017, p. 2). Linnet Taylor argues that the importance of big data and datafication and their positive impact on “citizenship, freedom and social justice are minimal in comparison to corporations and states’ ability to use data to intervene and influence” (Taylor, 2017, p. 2).

The Indirect Impact of Big Data

Indirectly, various institutions and sectors will experience the positive influence of the impact of big data. Because it can increase efficiency and productivity. Methods using big data can create organizational improvements of companies, public institutions, NGOs and even social movements. But at the same time, it may negatively impact concerns around privacy and civil rights. And this may lead to increasing social and economic inequalities such as the so called ‘digital divide’.

References