How is Big Data — the information generated from Google searches, GPS, online shopping and more — changing our lives? Kara Miller asked a panel of experts about the benefits and downsides of the international information database.
- Elizabeth Bruce: Executive Director of the Big Data Initiative at MIT.
- Tom Thai: Vice President of Marketing for Bluefin Labs.
- Rick Smolan: Author of "The Human Face of Big Data."
You may have heard of the term Big Data. Perhaps you’ve even heard that the stream of information generated by our Internet searches, mobile phones, credit cards, and GPS devices is changing our lives. But how, exactly?
Harnessing the Power of Big Data
Take the H1N1 flu in 2009. Scientists and doctors knew that it was sweeping the world, but what they didn’t know in real time was this: what continents and countries had it reached? Where were the new hot spots?
Turns out, some people did know: the folks at Google. They looked at popular search terms, crunched the data, and knew in real time what countries, states, and even cities were about to be dealing with an onslaught of flu. For Big Data, that’s just the beginning.
Big Data makes a big promise: the more that is known about individuals, the more companies can customize information for them — from advertisements to financial advice, real estate listings to medicine. And when you extrapolate the data from millions of individuals, the promise becomes even more substantial. Harnessing Google’s data on the flu could have helped public health officials slow its spread and minimize the intensity of outbreaks.
“We can do a better job of predicting the future and what’s going to happen,” says Elizabeth Bruce, Executive Director of the Big Data Initiative at MIT. “We can make better decisions based on data.”
Protecting Your Information
Of course, there are downsides to Big Data. In the age of social media and Internet interactions, parents teach their children not to share too much information online. Unfortunately, while we can decide not to put our email on Facebook or make our Twitter account private, we can’t control all of the data we share.
“When you search for something now, [Google is] serving up ads based on websites you’ve gone to,” says Rick Smolan, author of “The Human Face of Big Data.” “Companies are collecting our hard data. Credit cards are trading in our information. And yet it feels like it’s mostly companies and governments that are thinking about big data, not individuals.”
Just how much can companies tell about you from your data? A lot, says Smolan. Your credit card company may even be able to tell you if your marriage is in trouble — two years before you file for divorce. Because divorce is a credit risk, companies look for data like staying in a hotel near your house, sending flowers, and a sudden spike in gym memberships or trips to the salon. If all the data points add up, your relationship could be in trouble.
Though Bruce thinks that the benefits of big data could outweigh its flaws, she agrees that privacy is a major concern. Going forward, she argues, we need to think about how to give individuals control over their data.
“That’s the question: how much control do we have over what data we share, with who, and when?” Bruce asks.
Right now, Bruce and Smolan aren’t sure how companies, governments, and individuals will work together to secure data privacy. But both think it’s important to start talking about privacy now, while big data is in its infancy. After all, the amount of data we generate continues to grow. Smolan shares a statistic — from the beginning of civilization to 2003, humans produced five exabytes of information. Now, we produce five exabytes every two days.
“It’s now a complete feedback loop,” Smolan says. “We’re putting information into the system while we’re taking information out of it … We’re all trying to figure out what this means. Again, my big concern here is that we have this conversation now so that we do have some control over who owns our data, what they do with it, and who profits from it.”
Bluefin was recently acquired by social media giant Twitter, in what is reportedly Twitter's largest acquisition to-date.