Is big data changing us, or are we changing data?

by in Technology.

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

In discussing how big data is changing the world, a few luminaries gathered at the Blouin Creative Leadership Summit 2014 to determine: Where are we with the big data dialogue?

Big data itself has been a much-hyped buzzword — that is, until people started realizing what it is actually capable of contributing to business, health, education, etc. After the hype somewhat passed last year — which it hasn’t fully, but according to Gartner is at least past the peak of the hype bubble — decision makers and analysts have gotten a better grasp of what big data can deliver in broad senses.

John Foreman, Chief Data Scientist at Mailchimp noted that there are two paths for big data, and one of the futures for it is when companies’ interests align with the interests of their customers, and when governments’ interests align with their citizens’. Of course, there is much hot debate around the subject of how companies and governments use the massive amounts of data they collect on users, particularly since Edward Snowden’s 2013 leaks regarding the U.S. government and the National Security Agency’s wide surveillance tactics.

Foreman pointed out that there is such a thing as a death spiral in terms of using data for ill, even if you believe you are using it for better. As an example, he set forth the story of the Chicago police force using data to pinpoint who in their communities was more likely to commit violent crimes. The police then visited the homes of people who had been determined to commit crimes by various data points including their locations, ages, ethnicities, etc. — a tactic that did not improve the police’s relationships with those communities. As Foreman put it, it was like “using the water supply also as a toilet”. So, if the wrong people get their hands on data, who is to stop them from abusing it?

Stefaan Verhulst of NYU’s Governance Lab highlights the vastly beneficial possibilities that abound with big data. He notes we are at a juncture which includes the most amount of data we have ever had available, and the ways in which access to that data is changing for people with access to the internet. These transformations can help contribute to solving public problems, and also have already changed the ways in which business is conducted. In the same manner, he poses the question: How do you actually use the data that is already collected in a manner that will improve decisions?

Michael Macy, a sociologist at Cornell, made mention that data will not just solve problems, but it will create problems — a notion which seems to be the agreed result among all three thought leaders. The internet’s social nature means that we are all influencing each other. Data doesn’t work well when people are influencing each other if scientists are trying to perform human behavior experiments, but data works better when people aren’t aware of other people’s answers or their opinions.

But Macy does state that we are in a place ┬áin the dialogue where data is changing theory: Now we have social media where we can measure people’s opinions by their internal attributes, but also how their family and friends influence them.

It appears as though the dialogue is still in a balancing act, with big data’s potential available for good and bad, and will likely remain so until definitively harnessed one way or the other.