White House Big Data Report Raises Questions About Kind Of World We Want To Live In

Big data is amazing.

There are big data projects in cancer research, energy use, traffic patterns, fertility treatments. The Durkheim Project, currently underway, is analyzing opt-in data, including that scraped from social media profiles, from more than 100,000 veterans to help understand predictors of suicide risk. The project builds on an earlier phase of the research, completed last year, showing that “the text-mining methods employed were statistically significant (correlations of 65% or more) in predicting suicidality on an initial data set.”

But with big data comes big responsibility, and big data’s image has been hit hard by the Snowden Effect. In January (some would say way too late), President Obama commissioned a working group to look at areas in which the use of big data might overstep its limits, to the detriment of the citizens he is elected to represent.



The report was issued yesterday by the White House. One aspect of it, the potential for big data to lead to discrimination, was immediately written about by my MediaPost colleague Wendy Davis. From the report: “[O]ne study found web searches involving black-identifying names (e.g., ‘Jermaine’) were more likely to display ads with the word ‘arrest’ in them than searches with white-identifying names (e.g., ‘Geoffrey’).”

The report identifies other significant potential risks as well. Specific policy recommendations include:

  • Advancing the Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights to be appropriate in a world of big data.
  • Modernizing the privacy regulatory framework for children to ensure data protection while promoting innovation in learning.
  • Upskilling the federal government’s civil rights and consumer protection agencies to be able to recognize the use of big data in a discriminatory fashion and respond appropriately.
  • Making law enforcement’s standard for protection the same for digital content as it is for analog.

Making the world a better place, tick. Protecting us from those who would overstep their boundaries, tick. But so far it seems the biggest use of big data is to further consumerism. Thanks to big data, we are now meant to receive only and exactly the content we want, only and exactly when we want it. Every ad should be for a product we are just thinking we should buy. Every service should be tailored perfectly to our needs. Our social graphs should be fully leveraged, and we ourselves -- finally! -- should be fully optimized. It’s meant to sound wonderful, but it doesn’t sound wonderful to me.

I want to live in a world where the possibility of genuine discovery -- not the kind provided by algorithms -- still exists. I want to live in a world where the unique. the handmade, the local and small-batch products have a chance to compete against retailers wielding multi-zettabyte databases. I want to live in a world where I am equally likely to learn about people who think differently from me than about people who think the same. To me, one of the fundamental challenges of big data is that those decisions are taken out of our hands: the world is decided for us and served to us on a platter. All we need is a credit card.

So this is a call, to anyone who is working with or intends to work with big data. It is a call to nerds, to geniuses, to techies and coders, mathematicians and statisticians, behavioral analysts and user interface designers. It is a call to use your skills to make the world a better place, to ask yourself always, “What is the highest and best use of my talent? What kind of world do I want to live in? What do I want my legacy to be? How can we use big data to help us live rather than just to help us buy?”

The opportunity lies before us. It’s up to us what we do with it.

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