Big Data: the Good, the Bad and the Ugly

This is the ‘age of data’ and ‘Big Data’ is ushering in a new kind of industrial revolution. Big Data can be confusing to wrap your head around, but its uses (and misuses) should be understood.

In its simplest form, ‘Big Data’ means lots and lots and lots of data. And data are essentially large amounts of stored information - from numeric data to documents, emails and videos, which businesses, Governments and companies use for various analytical or strategic reasons.

The word ‘use’ here is key: what matters about Big Data is not what it is, but what it is used for. And because data are the universal currency of our modern digital age (it is said that data are the “oil of the 21st century”), the question what Big Data is used for becomes hugely relevant. The answer is that it’s use will vary from sector to sector, with a sometimes positive, sometimes negative, effect.

There are some areas where the use of Big Data is necessary and helpful. For many businesses, analysing data gives valuable insights into consumer behaviour, allowing for the development of better products and services and in spotting fraud, for example. Because of the sheer volume of data swirling around, businesses receive torrential amounts of raw data from us on a daily basis. Just think how many times a day you relay personal information. Practically all the time. A whole data analytics industry has sprung up to filter and structure these data, ready to answer almost any question companies may have about us consumers.

In the public sector - law, healthcare, government - there is considerable value in Big Data. It allows for greater transparency between the government and the people and improved efficiency of government services. The current, large scale, Covid vaccination programs all over the world and the analysis of its take up in various geographical areas and socio-demographic groups, is an example of how Big Data has been used for the wider good.

The COVID-19 pandemic actually spurred on many countries to digitise and to create real time ‘information dashboards’ for government leaders. Google’s heat-maps, as a simple example, have been used widely during the pandemic to check on people gathering during lockdowns.

Big Data may feel a little bit Orwellian. In fact, John Manzoni, Chief Executive of the UK Civil Service until April 2020, said in a speech at a Big Data conference that, “Getting [data] right is the next phase of public service modernisation; we need to make sure we use it properly.”

Just so. Because the other side of Big Data are the potentially disastrous consequences of the ease with which, and the extent to which, companies use data. There’s of course Amazon, which can use analytics to predict what we want to buy before we buy it. All social media companies do harvest our private data and use it potentially for things we may not agree with. The frightening thing is that companies, unlike governments, are not bound by laws or under public pressure to moderate their data use. Facebook, with Whatsapp and Instagram, Google, Apple and TikTok have, despite much criticism, pretty much a free reign with our data.

The Cambridge Analytica scandal in 2014 revealed that Facebook was using- and abusing- people’s data during election campaigns. The revelations at the time uncovered that data use can affect not just individual lives, but nations as a whole. And society, until that time, had not really considered how data could potentially be used against it and seems to have little or no control over the use of these data or the companies mining and selling them.

Stricter regulations around data protection from social media companies are high on the agenda of nation states and more and more pressure is being exerted on the big tech companies in order to limit their far-reaching powers of collecting, using and selling our data. The US has been rumbling on about this for years, but little has yet been achieved.

The take-home message? Big Data is here to stay, but we should be aware of- and careful of- what it is used for. And every time you say ‘yes’ to cookies, beware that your data are being transferred and mined.

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