I find as I have more and more conversations with people about Big Data, that many people do not even know what it is. Many who think they do, often find that rather they know of it, but cannot formulate a definition. Many simply know it as a buzzword (if you are one of these people, click here for an easy to understand definition). But this is all beginning to change as it becomes a bigger and bigger part of the world around us. This PBS special, “The Human Face of Big Data” shows us how big of a role big data is playing in our lives, and influential of a role it has in our world, and in shaping our future.
“In the near future every object on Earth will be generating data. Including our homes, our cars…even our bodies.” The special starts out with this impacting statement. Today, we tend to think of our mobile phones, our businesses and our computers as generating data. Yet, even today there are many other sources generating data we don’t think about, or don’t even know about. There are sensors in just about any electronic device (and consider that many products we have not previously associated as being an electronic device now is); from cars, to ceiling fans to toll booths. All of these products and devices are creating a digital exhaust, creating information that will live on well beyond any of us do.
This special attempts to answer the most common questions have about Big Data: What is it? Is it dangerous? How can we comprehend it? What does it allow us to accomplish? How will it impact our future? Can we get rid or it? Should we get rid of it?
In case you don’t have time to sit down and watch the entire hour-long show, I have highlighted some of the major points, answered some of these questions, and gathered some of the most startling information from the special.
We frequently think of Google as being a free, online, tool, for all of us to use at our own convenience. We use this tool to find out information that we want to know. But really, by using Google, we are creating information ourselves. This is not the same as information that is created, like Wikipedia. Rather, our searches alone, whatever we type in that search box, whatever inquiries we have tells Google a lot (see more on what search engines can predict before they happen; like who will win the Super Bowl, or even fashion trends).
An example that the PBS special gives is flu outbreak predictions. They have proven that they can predict a flu outbreak two weeks before it happens, and even before the CDC can. This is all based off of searches and online behavior.
Is It Free?
Is Google and Facebook really free? Think about all of the services Google offers us beyond the search tool…email, calendar, blogger, social media, document storage, presentation creator, media storage, contact storage, wallet manager, photo storage and more. Can all of these things that we used to pay for really be free?
We typically associate them as being free. This is likely why the stereotype of millennials thinking everything is free emerged. But really, they are not free. But rather than pay these services with money, we pay them with information about ourselves. This information, taking the form of data, is valuable in and of itself. This data can be used by the collectors, themselves, but it can also essential be sold. Businesses like to use this data to learn more about their customers; this helps them target their marketing, increase customer loyalty and retention and gain the awareness of new audiences and potential customers. But this raises questions of Big Data and Privacy.
The potential for medical data is endless. But it is also a very difficult concept for us to grasp. It is easy for us to digitize photos, but it hard to imagine digitizing a human, and digitizing biology. But as we are beginning to grasp this concept and see the value in doing so, we are quickly discovering more and more within the medical field.
A lot of what we have explored thus far is unstructured data and how it relates to health. For example, we can use searches to predict flue outbreaks. But experts within the medical field itself are beginning to see that there are gaps in the data. One woman describes how babies’ medical information is recorded on a piece of paper hourly, yet they are hooked up to machines that are constantly gathering all of this data…yet it all is unrecorded. If they could record this data, they could create an algorithm that would detect any unusual activity, that could save the baby’s life.
But like I said, the possibilities are endless. As humans, we have 6 billion genome data points that are currently going unused. At one point in our recent history, it was far too expensive and took far too long to analyze this data. But now, it is only about $500. Just imagine when it is only $10 and everyone can do it! On an individual level, it will inform us what diseases we might develop and what precautions to take. It will allow us to practice preventative medicine, and it will greatly improve personalized medicine. What may perhaps be more important are the discoveries we could make about humans as a whole. What will we find out about the human body?
Some think that we already know it all…what else could we possibly discover? But keep in mind, there was a time that surgeries were conducted on the same table without being cleaned in between, and in open-air environments. We didn’t understand infection. What a world of difference it made when we did. So what else is out there that we can learn that will make a world of difference? Will it help us feed more people? Will it help us cure cancer?
The main issue that people are having with the digital revolution and the Big Data frenzy is the invasion of privacy. As previously discussed, whenever we use the internet, we are generating information about ourselves. We basically tell people what our interests are, how much money we spend on certain things, what kinds of things we like to buy, what activities or hobbies we participate in and more. Many are not comfortable with the fact that businesses around the world have access to this wealth of information about us.
The information generated is so complete, it can tell us things about us that not even people that are closest to us know. Let’s take the Target case as an example. A furious man walked into a Target, demanding to speak with a manager. In his hand, he carried advertisements of baby products that were sent to his 18-year-old daughter. This was inappropriate for them to be sending to his young daughter; it was as if they were encouraging her to get pregnant. Then manager agreed, apologized and handled the situation, followed by the father returning home.
But the Target manager still felt terrible about the situation. So, a couple weeks later, he called the father to apologize again, and make sure he was not still getting those ads. During the phone call, the father instead apologized to the manager. He said that he had a talk with some daughter and discovered he was not aware of a few things…his daughter was pregnant. Therefore, using data and data analysis, Target knew that this teen girl was pregnant even before her father knew.
But as of now, less than 1 percent of the data we have collected has been analyzed, so many are fearful that this problem will only worsen as time goes on. There is also a concern for how the government is using data and information. In the special, they voice the argument of many that the government is invading our privacy by having access to data about individuals and this is undemocratic.
However, following the Apple and FBI case, we see that the government actually does not have access to as much information as you’d think they would (especially considering the use would be for an FBI investigation of a previous occurrence). Furthermore, I would argue that it is more likely that businesses are interested in using data about individuals. But what do people expect when they openly share this information with the public on social media sites? Furthermore, the same people complaining about Big Data and privacy, also continue to take advantage of the perks of Big Data- Netflix recommendations, Amazon, not having to watch boring ads, unaffiliated with their interests, etc.
Another concern that was voiced from the get go in “The Human Face of Big Data” is that it is a mighty tool that can change the world for good, but it can also change the world for bad. Virtually every tool throughout human history has had the potential to be dangers; it all started with fire.
As the amount of information we collect grows and grows, it will also become more powerful. As of this point in time, we do not exactly know how it will change everything, we just know that it will. Part of what’s scary is not knowing how big it can get, and what it will do.
Using Big Data to Solve Big Problems and the Future Optimal Use of Big Data
We know that Big Data has the ability to make great change in our society…but is it enough to describe it as a revolution? The Big Data Revolution is already here, but some wonder if it will be at the same scale as the agricultural and industrial revolutions.
Although they did not outright say this, the experts in the film suggest that it will be. Already, it is enabling us to connect brilliant minds from around the world, to collaborate to make the world a better place. And this is even before every single product on Earth collects data, as they predict will happen soon.
It is simply less identifiable, because it is an invisible revolution. They create the perfect metaphor for this; one that we can all understand. Our whole entire world is developing a nervous system, a cerebral cortex. All the individuals are the sensors, gathering information to feed to the nervous system, so it knows exactly how to respond.
Yes, this can be dangerous. But, it is also inevitable. This is the direction we are heading. Rather than waste our energy focusing on the bad that could happen, we should be focusing on how we can manage it, to optimize the good. Because as we collect more and more data, we have the ability to solve bigger and bigger problems.
So, this raises a new question- how do we ensure that Big Data will be used to create value for the world, and not just for our individual selves?