Big Data: A force for good or a Black Mirror?

The world is governed by coders, riven by hackers and filled with nefarious companies, whose corrupt use of personal data has driven half the population to revolt and the other half to retreat into virtual reality universes.

Children and teenagers are monitored through implanted trackers, their experiences sanitised by ‘parental controls’ that pixelate any visual that causes a heightened emotional response.

Relationships are dictated by a faceless, voice-controlled dating programme that dictates every aspect of a user’s romantic interactions, from the length of the relationship to the location of each date, absorbing personal data along the way.

It’s 2028.

Big Data is the force behind a flood of improvements and positive developments across the world.

Cyber-attacks are decreasing, as data is used to spot and prevent suspicious behaviour early. Big data has transformed the drop-out rate in schools and universities/colleges by identifying at risk students and enabling them to be offered extra help. Alzheimer’s is being detected through grocery data, the spread of malaria is tracked through mobile geolocation data and algorithms are used in premature and sick baby units to predict infection before symptoms appear.

Police misconduct is tracked and prevented, as data sifts through factors such as the quantity of high-stress cases an officer is exposed to in order to predict their potential for negative interactions with the public. Inequality at work is vastly reducing, as companies are forced to share their pay data. Truth is being allowed to triumph.

Which world would you rather live in?

You might recognise some of the scenarios in the first section of this article from the recent season of ‘Black Mirror’. This dystopian TV series, written by satirist Charlie Brooker, examines modern society and predicts where our current relationship with technology and data is taking us. In many cases, the most unnerving part of Brooker’s vision is the resemblance his imaginary worlds bear to our present reality. As in “Arkangel”, when a mother signs up for an implanted tracker that allows her to keep tabs on her daughter’s location, there are many current, real-world examples of well-intentioned accessories and apps that could be co-opted for more sinister purposes. “Hang the DJ” showcases a world in which we trust data-driven technology over personal instinct to a fault, while “USS Callister” demonstrates the problem with granting ultimate power to technology makers and pioneers, without questioning what they may want in return. What happens when that power is abused?

With GDPR on the horizon, we are on the brink of unprecedented change. Now, more than ever, companies cannot underestimate the importance of gaining consent from consumers to acquire their personal data – and then proving that they deserve their trust by using that data to provide real value, both to consumers and society as a whole.

Companies with a strong data strategy will respond to their customers’ genuine needs, rather than wasting human effort on products, services and marketing people don’t actually want.

Many examples of positive data usage are already happening, with international corporations making a strong contribution to a range of causes. Uber is sharing anonymised mobility data from over 2 billion trips with urban planners; at the end of 2017, Mastercard launched Kionect, a digital ordering system to empower small kiosk owners in Kenya as part of the microfinance movement; Aimia has launched its own Data Philanthropy scheme, supplying technical expertise to charities such as Centrepoint, which provides accommodation and support to homeless young people. Meanwhile the truth of data has been forcing other companies to take action over employment practices. The information recently provided on the pay difference between women and men at the BBC looks set to be the catalyst for overdue change there and in other organisations.

Equally, however, there have already been plenty of instances where the collection, use and storage of personal data and digital information has been mishandled. In 2017 Yahoo admitted that all 3 billion of its accounts had been hacked back in 2013, just one of many high-profile hacks to have occurred over the last decade; in 2015, Samsung TV owners were horrified to discover that their smart TVs were automatically logging users’ activity and voice commands without their knowledge; most recently, Facebook and Twitter have come under fire (and are still facing investigation) for giving rise to the ‘fake news’ phenomenon, served to people deemed to be sympathetic via its algorithm.

We are all still grappling with the implications of the consistent flood of new technology, of the data we push out every day into the hands of eager corporations, of how vulnerable we are to the unscrupulous practices of certain companies and individuals. With programmes like ‘Black Mirror’ tacitly encouraging consumers to question technology and how it’s used, we are on the cusp of a precipice where people can either embrace or reject this new data economy. Let’s prove Brooker’s bleak vision wrong and strive for a world where tech and data are a force for good.

Ultimately, making a data a force for good makes sound economic sense. Companies with a strong data strategy will respond to their customers’ genuine needs, rather than wasting human effort on products, services and marketing people don’t actually want. More efficient, data-driven output, based on peoples’ needs and wants means a boost to productivity; improved productivity, in turn, leads to economic growth, which can then help to fund public services and humanitarian efforts. In fact, better use of data and targeting could save millions for services like the NHS and the police force. At my data science company, Starcount, we are championing this approach; we have already used our proprietary technology, machine learning, diverse datasets and in-house talent to tackle challenges such as boosting female leadership, and encouraging students to study STEM subjects through looking at which schools are performing well. We are on the cusp of the new data revolution – let’s ensure that this is a revolution that doesn’t leave anyone behind.


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