Following the recent release of Netflix’s The Great Hack, big data is flavour of the month; but what is it about big data that leaves a bad taste in people’s mouths? We caught up with two data experts to talk the pros and cons of big data…
Big data is one of those hype terms you hear a lot, but what does it mean? ‘Big data’ is not a single technology but a combination of old and new technologies that helps companies gain actionable insight. Therefore, big data is the capability to manage a huge volume of disparate data, at the right speed, and within the right time frame to allow real-time analysis and reaction.
We’ve come a long way since early spreadsheets and databases. Today, every two days we create as much data as we did from the beginning of time until the year 2000. Big data is at the foundation of all the megatrends that are happening today, from social media, to mobile, cloud, gaming and artificial intelligence. As consumers we lap up the benefits of big data through online platforms: Facebook, Amazon, Youtube, Netflix and Instagram. Think how personalised these websites are to us specifically, compared to a few years ago. The Silicon Valley tech giants got on to the power of big data early and monetised it, via hooking us to their platforms. We love idling our time on these platforms and there are lots of benefits, but how is big data helping humanity?
The benefits of big data are in healthcare.
Big data can help cure cancer.
Cancer is a complex disease where a single tumour can have billions of cells. Hearing this word, we think that it can only be cured at hospitals and not in computer rooms. Well, medical researchers can use analytics to see the recovery rates of cancer patients and the treatment plans to find the treatments that have highest rates of success for this disease. To make these successful, patient databases from different health institutions need to be linked up, keeping in mind confidentiality of patient data.
For example, tumour samples can be examined alongside the patient’s other treatment records which, in turn, will help researchers to carry out treatment accordingly. Finding such trends will lead to better results. And it’s not just cancer, but all diseases that big data can help treat and cure.
Big data has opened up the area of genomics – a branch of molecular biology concerned with the structure, function, evolution, and mapping of genomes (a genome is an organism’s complete set of DNA, including all of its genes). This allows us to personalise medicine for each of us as individuals.
Precision medicine works on the fundamental principle that a particular disease gives rise to different physical symptoms in different individuals, based on their genome structure, lifestyle and environmental conditions. For example, two people of different ethnicity may not respond in the same way to a drug treatment. The ‘medical model’ of precision medicine aims to customise the treatment based on the three above mentioned governing factors, which characterises an individual’s response to the disease.
My company, Red Ninja, has also been using big data to help reduce ambulance response times in congested cities. We use real-time data analytics and artificial intelligence to control traffic lights to prioritise ambulance routes, so they don’t get caught in traffic jams. This enables the ambulance to get to people who have had a heart attack or a stroke within eight minutes and save lives.
Lee Omar is the CEO of Red Ninja, a design-led technology company working with big data around the world.
Companies and governments are stockpiling huge amounts of data about people, often in the blind hope that it’ll one day turn out to be valuable. Some companies like Facebook and Google have been enormously successful at profiting from what they know about users. Many haven’t and stockpile because everyone knows it’s all about big data, so collecting as much as possible must be good, right?
This over-collection of personal information harms our privacy and personal security in roughly four different ways.
Firstly, the most obvious harm is loss or theft of personal information. Recent examples like hotel chain, Marriot (Starwood) and British Airways (with its accompanying multi-million-pound fines) illustrate this perfectly. What were those companies thinking holding personal information for years after it was needed?
Having your name and address dumped on the internet is a huge safety risk for many different groups of people. Imagine being a judge, a prison officer, a journalist or a survivor of domestic abuse. How would you feel being doxed by a data breach?
Stockpiling of personal information puts people at risk and it only takes one data breach to permanently compromise someone’s safety.
Secondly, companies can abuse the data. When companies collect intimate information about people – contacts, private messages, web browsing history – it’s tempting for employees to snoop on spouses and public figures.
Take Uber’s ‘God view’, which showed every taxi passenger in a city by name, in real-time. This ‘cool feature’ allowed employees to follow their favourite celebrities, finding out their home address, favourite locations – tracking their every move.
Even highly security-cleared employees of the USA’s National Security Agency couldn’t resist the temptation to pry into partners’ private lives.
Companies can also sell to you based on your data. Facebook’s business model is to learn as much about you as possible to allow advertisers to precisely target you. Want to show an ad to 20-23-year-old women likely to engage in conservative political content? No problem!
If you click on a highly targeted ad like this and subsequently enter your email address on the website you arrive at, that website learns your age, gender and political views.
And since your email address is highly unique, that company can use it to buy your name and more details about you.
Once intimate data has been stockpiled, it’s vulnerable to another threat: governments. Companies have no choice about this; governments make the law, and if the law says a company has to hand over data, that’s that.
Imagine organising protests in a broken democracy like Turkey. Would you like to hand over your Facebook and Gmail login to the police? To allow them to see all your messages, contacts, meetings and other ‘incriminating’ evidence? Too often, we (citizens of privileged western democracies) shrug at the notion of privacy, claiming we have ‘nothing to hide’.
Take a moment to reflect that most of the world’s seven billion people don’t live under a mature democracy. There’s a reason privacy is a protected universal human right; just because we don’t value it, doesn’t make it any less vital.
Paul Furley is a software engineer involved in the internet freedom community.