It was in a Harvard dorm room in 2004 that Mark Zuckerberg launched what would become Facebook. It is a well-known story that was even dramatized in the hit movie “The Social Network“.Chronicling such a moment might have seemed odd if it were not for the fact that Facebook has played such a pivotal role in society. The pure power that this single social media company possesses is practically unmatched in all of human history. The biggest reason for this is because of the wealth of data that they own on literally billions of individuals worldwide.
Facebook and other social media giants have not escaped scrutiny for their handling of that data and for the purposes that they use it for, but it should be understood that big data is in fact largely a force for good in the world. Media hype makes it easy to be critical of Facebook or any other large entity that retains a treasure trove of data, but we should also try to educate ourselves about some amazingly positive things that big data is doing today.
Big Data Plays a Role in Medical Research
Researchers are intensely focused on what role big data is playing in working towards mitigating the lasting impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic at the moment, but this latest virus is not the only thing that big data has helped scientists work on in the medical field in recent years. As it turns out, big data has been working behind the scenes for years. Scientific American Magazine illustrated the picture perfectly with this example of how big data is already being used:
For example, knowing mosquito incidence in communities would help us predict the risk of mosquito-transmitted disease such as dengue, the leading cause of illness and death in the tropics. However, mosquito data at a global (and even national) scale are not available.
To address this gap, we’re using other sources such as satellite imagery, climate data and demographic information to estimate dengue risk. Specifically, we had success predicting the spread of dengue in Brazil at the regional, state and municipality level using these data streams as well as clinical surveillance data and Google search queries that used terms related to the disease.
Clearly, this is an example of very geo-targeted big data as well as globally available information about the frequency with which people are searching particular terms on Google. Scientists and doctors are using both to make more informed decisions about how to address major medical research problems.
Providing People with the Products and Services They Really Want
Commercial uses of big data are often viewed with a skeptical eye. We have already taken a peek at some criticisms that Facebook has had thrown its way over its use of big data, but it obviously extends beyond that. Virtually every retail store that a person enters today is using data points to track those customers, their preferences, and how they can better supply customers with what they want. The Huffington Post points out that this is even more true when the store being visited is an online one:
Consider this – if you go shopping at a large store, pay cash, and do not supply any personal information such as your email address or loyalty card, you remain anonymous to that company. However, if you pay by credit card, use a loyalty card, provide an email, or more – your purchase can be tracked, merged with other data, and a profile of your unique shopping behavior can be created. Online shopping takes this to a new level. Online retailers not only know what you bought, they know what you considered buying (viewed); where you came from (prior URL); what path you took through their site; what you finally bought; and how you paid for it.
The wealth of information that an online retailer can glean from just one interaction with a customer in their store far exceeds anything dreamed of by retailers of the past. There is no comparison, and this worries some people who fear that their personal information is now in the hands of commercial entities. However, it should be noted that all of these interactions are opted in by the customer and that they have the option to shop somewhere else if they are uncomfortable with personal data being tracked.
Companies do not seek the data because they are interested in interrupting the personal lives of their customers. Rather, they just want to find ways to better supply those same customers with the products and services that they really desire based on their revealed preferences when they are shopping around.
Climate Change: The Challenge of Our Time
To close out the case for why big data is actually a force for good in our world, look no farther than the biggest global challenge that humanity will face for the next several decades if not the next century. That challenge of course is climate change.
There is indisputable evidence that climate change is real, man-made, and that it is having a dramatic impact on the quality of life on our planet both for human beings and for all other living things. It is difficult to get our arms around because it is happening gradually and it doesn’t always cause immediate impacts in all areas of the planet equally and at the same time. That being said, climate change is a challenge that we must begin to combat now if we have any hope of turning it around.
Big data has been thrust into the battle as scientists and academics look for ways that we can slowly turn the tide in this war. One area that big data has come in handy is in the fight against deforestation. Mapping of the forest via satellite imagery has made it a lot easier to see in real-time where the forests are suffering the most. Areas that are most heavily impacted can become subject to new rules and regulations that prohibit or at least severely limit the removal of forestation from a particular area. Without this data, lawmakers are left to guess at which areas are most in need of their protection.
There is a tug-of-war between economic and environmental interests when it comes to deforestation, so it is nice to know that data can be applied in this battle to ensure that both sides get a fair shake.
Data is simply a tool to be used by human beings to meet the purposes that they have for it. It should not be feared in and of itself. Criticism is warranted when the data is used for truly dehumanizing purposes, but it is so important to remember all of the good that it is doing in the world as well even when we don’t see it at the forefront.