Understanding big data requires a shift in mindset. For those who have never heard the term “Big Data,” there presently exist many definitions. From my understanding, and in a most simplistic form, big data is the compilation of distinct data points over time from any possible source. Anytime any device in the globe connects to the World Wide Web that device is contributing to big data, and information can be gleaned from that connection. Simply connecting to the Internet from a certain place at a certain time can provide much more information than anybody could have dreamed at the dawn of the technology revolution. Depending on the features of a user’s device and its level of security, the contributions of individuals to big data can range from miniscule to massive. The phone in your hand or the laptop on your desk can be the eyes, ears, and information database of your world.
One of the most stunning facts about big data is that it allows predictability in one’s life based on past data points collected over time. The information you view on your device can determine where you might be tomorrow, next month, or even next year. This fact makes our technological devices extremely personal and sensitive. This is where making data anonymous becomes important. Many people are concerned about how private entities are using private data to market and sell products more effectively. This is the least of our concerns. What if your connectivity habits could determine your future with fairly reliable certainty?
It’s not as basic as visiting kayak.com and buying a travel packages that shows you will be in Tahiti for a week over the summer. It’s the compilation of data that matters. This simple purchase has a plethora of data points associated with it, and when analyzed in combination, these data points can illuminate what might happen at a given place and time. For example, it is common knowledge that plane tickets vary in price. Using data-mining techniques to record price variations in airline tickets from every possible travel site, one could reliably predict the best time to buy a given airfare at the lowest price. If that person knew how to code an application to detect that information, they would save quite some money. It already exists.
In a society dominated by big data and predictive analysis, it may be possible to predict crime. In a country that claims the title of “innocent until proven guilty,” Americans can only hope that that prediction of a crime does not become a reason to intervene prematurely. In a world of endless moral ambiguities, how can we let crimes come to pass when there may exist a 99.9% chance of a crime occurring based on big data predictive analysis? Is this a means to preventing crime even though it may infringe on civil liberties? With the recent NSA-Snowden events coming to pass, the world is wondering where the line will be drawn in data collection. Data collection in itself can be highly invasive of privacy, much less predictive analysis of this data being used to determine where someone may be and what he or she may be doing in the future.