Over the course of the past five years I have written extensively on the topic of big data for distinguished publications, including Forbes, The Wall Street Journal, MIT Sloan Management Review, and Harvard Business Review. My intentions in writing on the topic of big data have been to help shed some light and demystify this new phenomenon, and educate executives on the potential benefits and opportunities. Big data also represents change and new approaches, and many executives have sought to understand and appreciate how they can begin to derive value from the advanced application of data and analytics. There have been many well-articulated benefits to data-driven decision making, including greater accuracy, precision, efficiency, and responsibility in the use of data. Big data has helped fuel rapid innovation through faster iterative learning – fail fast, learn faster, execute smarter. While I have been a proponent of the potential benefits of big data, I have also understood that big data can be a double-edged sword, bringing insight, while also posing risks to privacy or abuse when data falls into nefarious hands.
Recently, there have been expressions of fresh concern regarding the risk of big data abuses, from data breaches to WikiLeaks and instances of data hacking. This has given rise to growing attention to the application and implications of big data, not just within the context of the business world, but within social contexts as well. In response to growing interest in the broader uses and implications of big data in a wide range of contexts, I was recently asked to organize and moderate a leadership panel on the topic of “Big Data for Social Good” for the Big Data Innovation Symposium held in Boston, MA this month. My familiarity with data in the context of societal issues had been limited to a few interactions with the leadership of MIT Media Lab, and a 2015 Wall Street Journal column that I wrote entitled Tracing Some of Big Data’s Big Paradoxes, which discussed some of the thornier issues around big data risks as articulated by Neil M. Richards, Professor of Law at Washington University in St. Louis.
Concerns about the use of big data has spawned a cottage industry of critics in recent years, among the most notable and most vocal being Cathy O’Neil, former Director of the Lede Program in Data Practices at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and a PhD mathematician from Harvard University. In her new book, Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy, O’Neil writes “Big Data has plenty of evangelists, but I’m not one of them”, and goes on to chronicle her path from Wall Street quantitative analyst to Occupy Wall Street protestor. Her book which was released on September 6 has been long-listed for the National Book Award, and garnered rave reviews such as this biting blurb from Reuters, “Weapons of Math Destruction is the Big Data story Silicon Valley proponents won’t tell. It pithily exposes flaws in how information is used to assess everything from creditworthiness to policing tactics…”
O’Neil is not the only serious thinker to raise concerns regarding the responsible use of big data. Emmanuel (Manu) Letouze is the Director and co-Founder of Data-Pop Alliance, a coalition on big data development co-created in 2013 by the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, MIT Media Lab, and Overseas Development Institute. Letouze’ research and work focuses on big data’s application and implications in areas including poverty and inequality, crime, climate change, human rights, and economic and ecological fragility. His mission in launching Data-Pop has been to help foster what he refers to as a “People-Centered Big Data Revolution”.
Letouze believes that we are living through an “industrial revolution of data” with implications for displacement and change in our social institutions. His focus is on the social impact of data. In its statement of purpose, Data-Pop envisions a future where “the potential of ‘Big Data’ for human development and humanitarian action has stirred a great deal of both excitement and skepticism.” It poses a question for the future of big data and its impact on social institutions — “looking a generation ahead, observing the persistent prevalence of absolute poverty, the rise of global inequality, and the many walls and ceilings impeding well-being, we wondered: what will it take for Big Data to have by then served the cause of human progress to the best of its ability and ours?”
Letouze colleague in Data-Pop Alliance is Professor Alex (Sandy) Pentland, who helped create and direct MIT’s Media Lab and now directs MIT’s Human Dynamics Laboratory and co-leads the World Economic Forum Big Data and Personal Data initiatives. Pentland has written extensively on the social implications of Big Data, in his book Social Physics and in articles such as Saving Big Data from Itself. Pentland asks “who should we trust to manage our data to avoid autocratic control?”
Thinking about big data in the context of its social impact has also attracted David Shrier, Managing Director of MIT Connection Science, and a former business executive who is now focused on the social impact of Big Data. MIT Connection Science is founded on a mission to “foster a better society” through social adoption of new ideas and better tools. Shrier, who previously led private equity and venture capital-backed companies as CEO, CFO, and COO, before founding the MIT Center, became interested in the social impact of Big Data, in his words, “so he could explain to his young daughter the work that he does and the difference that it makes.” Shrier has recently been working with the Commission on Enhancing National Cybersecurity to develop “An Internet of Trusted Data” designed to provide safe, secure access, with the result that “huge societal benefits can be unlocked, including better health, greater financial inclusion, and a population that is more engaged with and better supported by its government.”
Cameron (Cam) Kerry, an attorney with the Boston law firm of Sidley Austin LLP, and former acting secretary and general counsel for the U.S. Department of Commerce, is now working as a visiting scholar at the MIT Media Lab on issues related to privacy and personal data ownership. He is also supporting Professor Sandy Pentland’s Big Data for Public Good research initiative. Upon joining the Media Lab, Professor Pentland commented, “Cam will be working closely with the Media Lab to better understand and create solutions around critical issues of Internet privacy and big data.” Kerry has served as the U.S.’s chief international negotiator for privacy and data regulation and is passionate in his commitment to the ethical uses of big data.
Kerry, Shrier, and Letouze share a common viewpoint that Big Data can be harnessed to help address social problems of hunger, disease, poverty, and social inequity. And, when asked why anyone not directly impacted by these issues should care, they respond in unison and with great eloquence that these issues have an economic and social impact on every citizen. They envision a future where Big Data can be applied to a range of societal issues to help forge a more prosperous, safer, and healthier planet for future generations.
Big data has fueled an interest in the power of data and analytics to drive innovation, learning, and insight. It has raised awareness of the application of data and analytics to understand complex issues. It has brought quantitative analysis to bear to support qualitative thinking and judgement. The frontiers of discovery are vast. Big data has a role to play not only in faster learning and business insight, but if used responsibly, Big data can be applied to help address a range of complex global challenges. This is what a few committed individuals are betting on.
This article was written by CIO Central Guest from Forbes and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.