13 November 2013

Big Data Needs to Make the World a Better Place

Big data has been used for the better part of the past decade, some of the first uses being by epidemiologists and biological scientists to track the spread of disease. Though Google Analytics launched in 2005/2006, my undergrad degree in marketing at a major university in the US was at that same time and involved little to no mention of the power of aggregated, automated data. Today, big data and analytics in the Global North[1] are used as a core part of the marketing, advertising, and entertainment industries, to name a few.

When applied to contexts in economically developing countries, even the perfect set of data is not enough to predict what will happen, as infrastructure is lacking, government systems have limited capacity, and a large part of the population is impoverished. Still, the power of big data is no less dramatic than say, for the first time in world history, getting some kind record of the overwhelming majority of the world’s population. If someone can figure out how to aggregate this data (respecting privacy, no doubt) in a meaningful way, we can figure what the situation is – be it the impact of a natural disaster, rates of hunger, spikes in unemployment, increases in violence – when it is happening. And that means we can respond more effectively and efficiently.

Whereas a large push to use big data in sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and parts of Latin America is to better human development, big data in the Global North has largely been used for for-profit endeavors. There have been, however, community-betterment efforts of big data in the Global North. Bloomberg used big data to reduce crime in New York City, the US Center for Disease Control uses big data to help track the flu, and crowdfunding sites online use big data to help people get money for projects that they could otherwise not fund.

Despite examples of social good uses of big data in the Global North, as a proponent of using big data as part of international humanitarian and development solutions, one thing does continually bother me – though big data has revolutionized certain industries, I am not convinced it has made countries that use it the most any better. The past 10 years have seen the rise of big data, but they have also been difficult years for the Global North, not least of which, the United States.

Here are some statistics about the US between the years 2000 and 2010:[2]

According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, suicide death rates rose.

The U.S. Census reports poverty rates rose.

Inflation data shows the cost of higher education versus inflation skyrocketed up.

Of course all of the above are due to a huge set of variables, including national policies, consumer behavior, and the world economy. Even if we were able to model every driving factor and outcome of the trends listed above and present that data to everyone who has any influence, there is no guarantee a person will make the best decision for either themselves or for the country. Likewise, when politicians, constituents and bystanders make decisions, there is no guarantee good data will be followed.

But why is it that with all of the data available, dialogues going on in present-day America reflect how bullying, a lack of respect of women, mass shootings, and unfair immigration practices are destroying our country? With all of the data available, why are we still talking about the same topics as 10, 20, 30, even 40 years ago?

I personally think the reason goes back to the predominant goal industries have in using big data - to make a profit in the short-term. There is a huge imbalance to what big data can currently offer to the average person in countries that are at the forefront of its usage curve. We have figured out how to generate an automatic song recommendation to someone with a few clicks of a button, but we have not figured out how to use big data to keep someone out of poverty. You can use big data to figure out what pair of shoes to buy based on your preferences, but not a customized plan based on those same characteristics – occupation, location, age and interests – to overcome suicidal thoughts.

Big data will not be able to tell us whether the world is a better place. That is determined by other measures - happiness, access to services, security, safety, expression, among others. What big data can do is improve the performance of the measures we use to determine if the world is a better place. It’s time to make big data less about consumer products. Simply put, big data in the Global North needs to become more relevant to issues that truly matter.

[1] When I use this term, I generally mean economically developed countries, including the US, Canada, Europe, Australia, Singapore, Japan and New Zealand
[2] To be fair, not all is lost. Notably, murder rates are on the general decline.