How Big of a Problem is Big Data, Really?

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A little over a week ago, Forbes posted an article about big data as it related to privacy and speculated how big of a role the “creep factor” might play in the creation of new Internet privacy policies. The author, Tim O’Reilly, ultimately suggested the idea that big data itself wasn’t necessarily a threat — that it’s possible for companies to remain ethical after they collect troves of data, provided that the correct legislation be passed.

Basically: we shouldn’t be worried about prohibiting data collection, but instead focus on the potential misuse and abuse that that data collection often entails.

Initially, I thought that that sort of attitude was a little misguided, given the current political climate; it puts a lot of responsibility on a government to not only pass that sort of responsible legislation, but also to uphold it and be ethical and transparent about it, and — since the NSA is still overreaching — who knows if that’s possible.

As I was scrolling through my Facebook newsfeed, though, it dawned on me that there might be something to O’Reilly’s idea.

Stopping on a graphic of a map that supposedly accurately (who knows how true that is, really) color-coded the density of bilingual (or multilingual) American population across the United States, someone noted that there appeared to be a striking correlation between racism and areas in which the only language whatsoever (blank/dark zones) was English. In response, someone else posted in the comments section a “Racist Map,” which seemed to actually indicate the contrary — that most of the racist stuff was happening in the East and West Coasts.

Even though I doubted the quality of the study behind it, looking at this “Racist Map” made me realize that I actually really like the potential applications of the idea O’Reilly advances. At the risk of sounding like a proponent of Big Brother, if the NSA already has all that data, why not apply it towards decidedly good ends?

Think about it: a better, more accurate kind of geo-sociographic profiling like the the one in the Twitter survey could be conducted by a government body similar to (but different enough from!) the NSA to benefit cultures in a whole number of ways. In my mind, racism (often) stems from a lack of good education. Looking at a report like this, our government could take a much more positive stance on stamping out racism in the country by evaluating maps like these and roll out test programs for education reform.

Other applications could include analyzing high volumes of complaints from a particular region and filing a report from them to apprehend various infrastructure problems; a better, more accurate approach to democratic representation from our elected officials; etc. In that scenario, big data could actually be used to benefit the masses — not just benefit corporations for better marketing tactics; or “anti-terrorist” surveillance.

What do you think: do realtime problem-solving applications offer a reasonable justification for continuing big data collection practices? Tell us in the comments!

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