Big Data In 2020: More Info, More Problems

The latest Pew Internet survey asks Internet stakeholders about their hopes and fears for big data.

Big data--which powers everything from Netflix recommendations to fraud alerts--is changing the way we live. But is that a good thing? In the latest Pew Internet/Elon University survey, 53% of a handpicked group of “Internet experts, observers and stakeholders“ said big data would produce an overall positive effect by the year 2020. Meanwhile, 39% said it would have an overall negative effect (8% didn’t answer).

Many who said big data would have a positive influence on the future pointed to its potential to solve diverse problems.

"There is value to be found in this data, value in our newfound publicness,” argued Jeff Jarvis, the author of What Would Google Do?. “Google's founders have urged government regulators not to require them to quickly delete searches because, in their patterns and anomalies, they have found the ability to track the outbreak of the flu before health officials could and they believe that by similarly tracking a pandemic, millions of lives could be saved.”

His optimism about the power of big data is shared, for instance, by a startup called Kaggle, which hosts data science competitions that aim to predict everything from which patients will be admitted to hospitals next year to which blog posts people will like. And the U.S. federal government has committed $200 million to big data.

Despite the usefulness of all of this information, however, the idea of collecting more and more from consumers strikes a creepy chord for many survey respondents. Some argued that the benefits of big data would be companies, not individuals.

“The world is too complicated to be usefully encompassed in such an undifferentiated Big Idea,” wrote John Pike, the director of GlobalSecurity.org. “Whose ‘Big Data’ are we talking about? Wall Street, Google, the NSA? I am small, so generally I do not like Big.”

Others, including Netflix senior engineer Mark Watson and Microsoft engineer Christian Huitema, questioned whether big data’s biggest influence would be visible by 2020 or whether humans are capable of organizing the impending explosion of data at all.

Most of the 1,021 respondents (40%) identified themselves as research scientists or employed by a college or university. Smaller groups said they were employed information technology companies (12%), non-profit organizations (11%) or consulting companies (8%). You can read more of their responses here.

Prof. Janna Anderson, an author of the report, tells Fast Company that the statistical split of positive and negative outlooks isn’t that important. Though respondents were forced to pick sides, many of them said that they thought the future of big data would likely have both positive and negative elements. Plus, she says, a ruling on the future of big data isn’t the point of the survey.

“People generally tend to build the future according to what opportunities they see ahead,” Anderson says.“[The survey] allows a lot of issues to be addressed now in positive ways that can build a better future.”

[Image: Flickr user donielle]

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  • Jamie Beckland

    The notion that the value of Big Data accrues to companies, and not individuals, doesn't make much sense.

    First, data can only bring value to companies, if it first brings data to customers. After all, customers pay companies. If customers are not getting value, then they will not spend more with companies. This is what we are seeing at Janrain, whenever we put social profile data from customers into use.

    Second, data is already bringing huge amounts of value to individuals - mostly for free. Facebook is an excellent example of this. Many people find meaningful value from using Facebook's platform, built on analyzing data to present the most relevant status updates to you as an individual. Individual websites are emulating these elements with more widgets powered by social connections, and managed with a central user identity - we work with more than 350,000 of them.

    Third, the public also has a huge amount of data, that can already be used for the public good. Check out data.gov, and look at all of the state-level data sets coming online. The public might move a bit slower, but they are also default-open with their data.