Op/Ed: Why You Shouldn’t Fear Big Data (But Still Stay Wary)

Editorial / Tech

The idea of Big Data isn’t anything new – for years market research companies have tried to get as much information as they can about their consumers to help inform marketing plans and decisions. Governments have also sought more information to better tackle crime and direct their policies. However, big data has changed from simple market research questionnaires into the always tracking, always collecting, mass data banks that are effortlessly driven by computer systems. When people mention big data, it can be easy to form a knee jerk reaction and pull out the tin foil hats – but big data also has some benefits.

The Case For Big Data

If you like one of Google’s products then you probably unknowingly like it due to big data. Google is one of the (if not the) kings of big data. They have refined the design of their products based on the information they have collected from their users but more importantly, their recommendations are built upon a foundation of big data.

Better recommendations.

Services like Google Play Music, the Google Play App Store, and Google Now all rely on collecting data from millions of users and discovering what groups of things people like. So if you downloaded Instagram, you probably would also like “Instagram Widget” or if you just bought the new Coldplay album, then you would probably like The Fray as well as Coldplay’s back catalogue. Of course this isn’t limited to just Google – Amazon are also masters at this – and of course the primary reason companies do this is to help sell you more products. However, I’d bet almost everyone would choose better recommendations over poorer recommendations (barring security concerns of course).

Effortless collaboration

One of the big reasons to drink the Google kool-aid is that their services link together very well. If you can access your documents from your email and share them with a contact which you made from Google+ (but never actually asked them for their email), then it saves a lot of hassle. This is all possible when your data is in one place. Furthermore, when you have your calendar connected to your messaging system you can ensure you don’t have any conflicts when you arrange a meeting and instantly add that meeting to your calendar.

Predictive advice

Did you hear the story where Target knew a girl was pregnant before her father did (due to her shopping choices)? Kind of scary stuff isn’t it – until you realise that this could be used to help inform your decisions faster. Imagine your healthcare professional contacting and arranging a consultation because your stats showed some worrying signs. It might feel scary at first, but early recognition of symptoms is often one of the most important factors in treatment. Likewise, hypochondriacs can be assured that they are fine… whether they believe it or not is a different matter.

Great efficiency

With a wealth of data (both specific to you as a user and other users) companies can customize your user interface or actions for greater efficiency. Look at Aviate (now from Yahoo!), an Android launcher which presents the apps you usually use in a certain context (such as a notes app for work, Netflix at night time, etc). Although an element of this can be done without the data backbone (just by inputting the settings yourself), big data sometimes shows surprising results for items you would never have predicted to be important for a certain context.

Cheaper devices and services

Many devices and services can offer cheaper (and in some cases even free) prices due to subsidizing their cost via big data. For rich Westerners this can feel horrible as it means we (or at least our data) are all a product being sold, but for poorer citizens and developing countries it means that they can access high quality services and products equal to that of richer individuals. This has great potential to aid development of poorer nations and neighborhoods by providing access to the tools and information that the wealthiest have, at least giving them a chance at equal development.

The Disadvantages

Of course, it’s not all roses and fairies. There are disadvantages to big data that have been well documented:

  • constant tracking
  • abuse by governments
  • more manipulation by companies
  • being a product for a company
  • security risks from third parties
  • false negatives and false positives

This is something that each person has to consider and subsequently work out just how much big data they are happy with. In many cases, there are now more security conscious options which don’t track their user’s data, but they usually cost more and can lag behind their big data alternatives.

Do you avoid services which track your data or have you embraced big data as your friend? Let us know in the comments below, or on Google+, Facebook, or Twitter.

Feautured image courtesy infocux Technologies.

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