From Analysis to Paralysis

Big Data is often portrayed as witches’ brew. But such judgments miss the crucial point: supporting data analysis will facilitate our everyday lives.

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Germany is known as the home of skepticism. Before new innovations reach the market, Germans will have put them through the acid test to determine pros and cons. During recent years, the IT sector took the brunt of this.

As IT – the central hub of any company – continues to grow in importance, this discussion seems far from over. Be it Cloud Computing, Big Data or Open Data: critics’ warnings always find a sympathetic ear while the proponents are largely left out. Are the arguments in favor of such innovations too weak or do we simply fall too easily for the prophets of doom?

The truth lies somewhere in between. Big Data is closely related to issues of data protection and if providers want to win the trust of the customers and show them the advantages of new technologies, they must treat the matter with as much transparency and reliability as possible. If they fail, the discussion on Big Data will too.

Big Data is built on participation

Current practices evoke the feeling that companies use customer data and information they gather from the Internet solely for their own benefit – and to the disadvantage of the customers. They screen consumers down to the last detail in order to press them with custom-made advertisement. These practices do exist and Big Data has become a useful tool in such endeavors. Still, reducing its usefulness to such marketing alone would be erroneous and shortsighted.

Big Data is no witches’ brew and far more than a mere technology. For all intents and purposes it is rather a social attitude based on data protection and awareness. Ultimately, it can benefit us all. Analyzing vast amounts of information puts the commodity of data in a whole new context and infuses it with new meaning: new information is created and benefits not only big business but also society and individual customers. Provided that we are willing to accept its utility – in both material and immaterial respects –, data can help us solve many problems.

Let me give you an example: thanks to the analysis of premature babies’ personal data, doctors can easily determine which symptoms need to be treated with drugs to avoid calamity. This information is highly valuable and yet it bears no financial profit. Instead, the utility of such data is being paid for by more data. Those that benefit from Big Data will recognize its use and happily provide personal information. Big Data is largely built on the idea of participation, which depends on what we stand to gain or lose from it.

The enormous potential of Big Data is perfectly illustrated by open data initiatives in countries that are trying to make public information available to citizens. The U.S. and the U.K. are the pioneers of this new trend.

Under President Obama, the U.S. government has published a large deal of public data on the website www.data.gov. Innovative software developers were able to access these troves of data to create new apps in order to help people in their everyday lives. These apps combine the raw data from environmental, meteorological, energy, consumption, education, or health records with geographical information. This allows for smartphone apps like “Airnow”, which measures the quality of air and can inform allergy sufferers about things like the pollen count in real time.

The Canadian website Eatsure publishes the results of public food inspections. Customers can check the record of the restaurant or grocery shop they plan to visit. “Eastsure” disclosed that during an inspection in January 2013, inspectors discovered that a Domino’s Pizza branch in London, Canada stored unknown toxic substances in close vicinity to the food that would later fill the plates of their customers – useful information for potential visitors.

Meaning and utility beyond commercial interests

Even in Germany –home of the skeptics – such initiatives are gaining ground. The website www.frankfurt-gestalten.de offers citizens of Frankfurt the possibility to follow developments in local politics and to start their own initiatives to shape the city. The site’s operators use information from the city’s database and connect it to updates on construction sites, road closings, police announcements or local initiatives. This in turn fosters discussions and exchange over planned transportation projects, the city budget or motions from the mayor’s office.

Yet, in comparison to other countries, Germany is still lagging behind when it comes to Open Data. The website www.govdata.de – the German version of the U.S. portal www.data.gov – has so far only managed to inspire 14 apps, while its American equivalent offers more than 350.

Transparency and trust are core elements in the struggle against public skepticism towards new technologies. In the case of Big Data, businesses need to demonstrate that data analysis can have meaning and utility that stretches far beyond commercial interests.

Read more in this debate: Mathew Ingram, Zeynep Tufekci.

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