The Missing “Why” in Big Data

Why is big data such a big deal? Learning why corporations are adopting big data helps you understand what it is and how to protect your privacy as more and more personal data becomes accessible to corporations.

Our usual question when we hear about something new is, “what is it?” Our human minds process information by categorizing it – that is, by labeling objects, concepts or entities and attaching properties to them. This helps us to connect new information to something that we already understand. For example, we know that a “computer” is a machine that allows us to access the internet, create documents, analyze data, etc. We are able to understand new technologies such as Google Glass by comparing them to the computers we know. From this perspective, “big data” is simply a relabeling of existing technologies that collect, store, and analyze data. And yet, with big data, understanding its properties does not enable us to grasp its significance.

Big data is described as having the properties of volume, velocity, veracity, variety, and so on.  These attributes are accurate, but hardly unique: many could be used to describe anything from a media platform to a car dealership.

Why big data?

The key to understanding big data is not in the “v”s that describe what it is and how it works, but the “why.” Why is big data becoming so crucial to commercial success?

Many companies know by now that if they do not develop big data strategies they will likely be left behind in a competitive market. Big data is to business what sonar is to ships. It expands companies’ awareness and understanding of their environment far beyond what they could see without these technologies.

Corporations are increasingly making use of big data because it enables them to make decisions based on more accurate, detailed, and up-to-date data than they have ever had before. Corporate data analysis is not a new thing. For instance, Walmart was able to take over much of the retail market by using manufacturing research data to master the production and supply chain and minimize costs. Corporations have long been collecting internal data about manufacturing, supply, and sales trends. However, the consumer data now being leveraged for corporate benefit is more personal and more detailed than before. Social media analytics enable companies to target production and marketing to emerging trends: think, for example, of how “jesuischarlie” memorabilia appeared for sale within days of the hashtag’s creation. Just as Walmart was able to take over much of the retail market by minimizing costs, companies that use big data analytics to catch new trends will get ahead by maximizing distribution.

Big data is your data

Big Data Business Intellegence

Corporate big data analytics collect information about consumers through multiple channels, such as customer reward programs, email subscriptions, user behaviour tracking on corporate websites, and social media profiles.

So really, the key feature of big data is that it gives companies access to your personal information.

From a legal perspective, we are consenting to this. As a society we are becoming more comfortable with sharing our personal information, especially online. The privacy risks of big data analysis are still not well understood. With some forms of data analysis, your personal data simply counts towards statistics, and is very unlikely to be linked to your identity. With more individual-level analysis, such as personalized online advertising, the privacy risk is more significant.

What does big data mean for your privacy?

As the scope of big data expands, we are beginning to notice certain creeping changes. Take personalized ads that feel invasively specific as they offer products or services targeted to a medical condition you have, or your current financial situation. Or a car insurance company offering discounts for customers who allow them to monitor their driving habits using their in-car communication system. It is not unreasonable to predict that big data collection could, in a few years, impact your prospects of employment, professional certification, or credit eligibility. Various configurations of social, economic, behavioural, or even academic status may become associated with undesirable outcomes, such as poor job performance or high rates of car accidents, and become a basis for discrimination that is not addressed by current access laws.

What can you do if you don’t want to be monitored online? One option is to create multiple online identities, each targeted to a specific activity: one for shopping, one for news subscription, one for email communications. Ensure that these various identities and accounts appear real, each with their own email and social media profiles. The second option is to be active in advocating for “big privacy”. Take the time to understand the impact of big data, and support groups calling for new legislation to halt the emergence of the all-seeing, all-knowing corporation.

>>Article on Big Data Privacy Challenges



Senior Editor: Esther Townshend

Waël Hassan, PhD, is the founder of Transigram an online monthly magazine. Transigram explores legislative and regulatory changes, new technologies, and the needs and challenges of data custodians provides insight into the development of our approaches to open data access strategies and models. It provides summaries, analyses, insights, and commentaries on business transformation in the areas of Governance, Risk & Compliance, Project & Portfolio Management, IT Strategy & Operations, and Technological Tool Management.

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