Big Data

Data has been holding my attention for a while, as it might by now be obvious. I was lucky enough to accompany a group of C-level executives from Germany on an East Coast trip to industry leaders in Big Data to gain a glimpse at the cutting edge this spring.

The question I think is less, what Big Data is, but where Big Data is, because it’s everywhere, literally.  Think George Orwell’s 1984 on steroids times infinity plus one. Big Data is the information the NSA requested from Verizon, Big Data is the advertising pushed to your screen after doing research for blue socks. You get to see are blue socks for the next few days, until your next search and then you see LED light bulbs everywhere. Big Data is all the information we output all the time with the many devices we use and the endless apps on them. Keep a training log online? Play solitaire on your iPhone? Upload your photos with geo-tagging, as default, courtesy of your camera? Your metro card? Your built-in car GPS? And that’s just the simplest of lists from our consumer world.

A bit of light is being shed on what Big Data is and how it can be constructively used in The Human Face of Big Data by Rick Smolan and Jennifer Erwitt. The coffee table book and the iPad app do an amazing job describing everything Big Data.  It’s the most enjoyable science book I’ve ever read (OK, the second) and I’m going page by page although with the coffee table layout it would be easy just to browse.  It’s GREAT, fascinating, thrilling and eye opening.

Big Data is awesome and it is super scary. And that’s where the questions start that makes it such a hot topic: how do we use and manage Big Data? The big discussion will be around ethics, privacy and Big Data mining. Who owns the data – how will it be used, how transparent is its use.

If we look at consumer behavior and societal trends we have moved from being consumers to co-creator (or co-conspirators as I prefer to call it), social media has taught us to be empowered not controlled, we no longer consume passively, but participate while we interact as a community, as media caters to ever smaller niche groups.  We have power as communities of common interest; we are networked and no longer sit in our own social group. The products we consume are influenced by “us”. We, the people, have a voice. We have so far used the voice to make our dissatisfaction known with products we consume; we have used our voice to bring on societal change – not as much in ‘fat and happy America’, although the 99% movement and Anonymous have been heard loud and clear.  The Arab Spring has brought about REAL and far reaching change and continues to do so.

But in all of this I want to know where my privacy is? I have not given explicit permission for my set of data do be mined, used or analyzed. Yet – the data exists that knows if I leave my house and turn right, I’m going to the subway, I go straight ahead I’m going to work out in Central Park. However if I break a geographical patterns; what then? Am I visiting a new friend who’s radicalizing me to be an antigovernment terrorist, or have I discovered a new nail spa?

The credit card company that warns you of potentially fraudulent charges and knows your preference in food choices, also knows that you are about two years out from having a divorce, or are planning to get pregnant.  Oops.

I want to know what happens with my data. How secure or traceable it is. And what data gets mined to begin with?  We need transparency and we need to educate ourselves better on what Big Data we generate and for whom.  No one reads any of the disclaimers we so quickly click on to get the part where we are able to download something, pay something or have access to something. Maybe an app that skims through all that legal stuff and alters us to red flags would be useful; then again, we unfortunately cannot red-line a software usage agreement… or can we?