The world is currently in the centre of a technological revolution that is profoundly transforming the way we interact – socially and economically; the internet continues to transcend barriers and create new realms of physical space. At the very foundation of this is our ever-increasing capacity to measure. Generalizations like “the standard of living continues to fall” have been replaced with more precise statements like “the Misery Index rose to 30.41%”.
Technology means we are more connected than ever before through internet-enabled-devices that send and receive messages without us even knowing. Unmatched computational power has led to astonishing and unanticipated discoveries, innovation, and progress in our general quality of life. The result is that the world is increasingly awash – almost overwhelmingly – with data, and this has the potential to change almost every aspect of modern life.
What is big data?
There are probably as many definitions of the term “big data” as there are fields of study. However, according to a report by the Executive Office of the President of the United States, “most definitions reflect the growing technological ability to capture, aggregate, and process an ever-greater volume, velocity and variety of data”15. Big data is more important for what it does than what it is.
Data is the new oil – a witty sound bite that tries to convey the idea of how valuable data is in the modern world. Just like oil needs refining, data needs processing, before its true value can be unlocked. The similarities do not end there. Over the last century, the use of oil has significantly contributed to global warming and climate change, two of the biggest challenges facing us today. Big data is less likely to endanger life on our planet, but it is likely to have life-changing effects on our legal, ethical and social norms, not to mention the way we view and value privacy and our personal data.
Tracking and analyzing everything
Big data may still be in its infancy. Unparalleled computational power has led to unanticipated discoveries, innovation, and progress in the general quality of life. While collating data about everything everyone does may seem harmless on the surface, it creates an asymmetry of power between those who hold the data and those who give it – knowingly or otherwise. This raises several questions. It is one thing for companies to track data on their stock price and product performances – including their competitors.
But are they also within their rights to track data on company employees, customers and their shopping habits? Is it permissible to pool data on their health status and information on family members? Where exactly do you draw the line and who has access to all that data? Who does it belong to – the individual or the company collecting it? Are we being spied on by intelligence agencies or anyone else? Where do national security end and privacy begin? These are questions that remain unanswered while the technology surges on. While privacy laws have, so far, failed to keep up with technology and the variety of data that is being collected, one thing is certain: the uses of big data will have far-reaching implications.
In terms of impacting cybercrime, ever-increasing honeypots of data are becoming prime targets. Most hacker attacks so far have been on the servers of companies hosting clients’ private information. Most notable was Apple in 2017 where the hackers demanded a ransom in bitcoin or they would remotely erase millions of customers’ devices. As the world becomes increasingly reliant on interconnectivity and technology to run even the most basic of tasks, we are becoming increasingly susceptible to cyber-terrorist attacks.
Business models will be altered forever – “Uber in” or “Kodak out”
In the business world, a primary goal of technological in-novation in every industry is increased efficiency. Innovation, driven by big data and analytics, is changing market norms and creating obsolescence. For some businesses, the fundamental change presents a huge opportunity for substantial growth while, for others, who lack the will, fore-sight or capacity to adapt, it will signal the end. The rise of one often means the demise of another – Netflix to the video rentals industry, the Smart-phone to mp3 players, diaries, cameras and a host of other things. These innovations have major economic implications on sectors, communities and countries in the form of job losses, potentially increased crime rate and emigration.
Big data is causing a shift to healthier and more energy efficient lifestyles. For instance, data on the possible health implications of alcohol beverage consumption could prompt a shift to other products and have damaging consequences on the alcoholic beverage industry and the economies and jobs that it supports. Data that has established clear and un-equivocal links between carbon emissions and global warming is causing countries to take action to cut down the demand for carbon-based forms of energy. In the long term, this will weigh on oil prices and adversely affect the Nigerian economy – lower revenues, foreign exchange earnings and the devastating effect on the wider economy as seen during the economic recession of 2016. Unemployment is now at an all-time high of 18.8% and there is now a growing wave of highly-skilled workers emigrating to first-word countries – especially Canada.
There is also the lure of getting engrossed in all the things that big data can tell you and potentially ignoring the things that it cannot tell you. A February 4, 2015 article by CNN put it this way: “Many important questions are simply not amenable to quantitative analysis, and never will be. Where should my child go to college, or when? How should we punish criminals? Are charter schools a good idea? Should we fund the human genome project or basic science in general? Should we have preschools? Taking quantitative answers to these questions seriously not only the risk of getting the answer wrong but also shape the underlying reality in ways that are detrimental to our collective well-being16”.
In summary, big data is potentially dangerous. Its use, and inevitable abuse is set to define our future. New legal frameworks will be required to achieve greater accountability, transparency and perhaps even more control over “who is able to do what” with our data.
Data compels us to make rational decisions, but in the wrong hands may have grave repercussions.