Data Mining

Big Data: The Jetsons, Not Minority Report

Big Data is watching you. At least, more and more that is the message the general public is being sold. A recent TIME article titled "Big Data Knows What You're Doing Right Now" explains how every time you visit a website, make a credit card purchase, or update your social media, a sliver of data is released into the electronic world. Behind closed doors, data-savvy companies are aggregating these puzzle pieces into a detailed picture of you. The applications are usually innocuous enough - targeted ads, product recommendations and the like. But these companies could know everything from your income, to your social security number, to your hobbies, and the uncomfortable fact is that we can’t really be sure what they’re doing with it. All we know is that every day, behind the scenes, you are being judged.

The scenario is taken to the extreme in the sci-fi movie Minority Report. In this dystopian future there is a lot more than targeted advertising. People are arrested and jailed for crimes they didn’t commit, simply because they were considered likely to commit them. Rather than computers, these judgements are made by psychic “precogs”. The action starts when protagonist John Anderton (played by Tom Cruise), a police officer who works with the precogs, is himself predicted to commit a murder. The story goes on from there, but the question remains: how do we feel about third parties judging us not on our actions, but on what they think we’re likely to do?

At Think Big Analytics we work in the Big Data space, and we prefer a slightly different vision of the future. We like The Jetsons, where technology is about making life easier. Rosie the robotic maid isn’t “judging” anybody. She is just anticipating the family’s needs to she can be helpful, and that’s the role that we see Big Data filling. We live in an age where Netflix recommendations are pretty spot-on, stolen credit cards get detected, and Pandora-generated song mixes bring us tunes we didn’t even know existed. The information age certainly raises privacy concerns that will need to be addressed, possibly even through regulation like we see in the credit industry. But those fearing a “Minority Report” society should consider the personal and public benefits delivered by Big Data innovations.

So far, Big Data has mostly impacted the web and retail, but other applications are fast evolving. Google Glass makes it easy to record our daily lives, blending pictures and videos with times, locations, and what we were doing. Mobile consumers using fitness tracking apps are exporting their data to Excel for self-analysis, to better understand themselves and their friends. Tools like the FitBit Flex and Nike's Fuel Band monitor users’ physiology, and could someday report detailed information on your health. How would you like to get a text message when your risk of a heart attack increases?

The deepest insights and benefits happen when everyone joins the game, since that’s when the patterns of human behavior can be discovered. Consumers live by Google Autocomplete - that unheralded technology that corrects your spelling and completes your thoughts - only thanks to the mass of data from other users, both similar and dissimilar to themselves. The ease with which Google understands what customers "really" mean when they misspell a word comes from analyzing the queries of millions of users and tracking them over time to observe website destinations, future queries, etc. The same can be said for Amazon's oft-touted recommendation engine, the security software protecting your bank, and even the matching algorithms of your favorite dating sites.

These "data as a public good" insights only underscore the societal value of Big Data. Beyond product and services, data insights have changed how we understand our world and help those around us. The most popular and influential of descriptive sciences, Behavior Economics, still relies on simple experiments without accounting for changes over time. How will studies on the societal impact of credit cards change once longitudinal data for users tracking spending on Google Wallet or Apple Passbook are analyzed?

The proliferation of data creates issues, both real and potential. But so does every disruptive technology, like cars and printing presses once upon a time. The problems presented by Big Data will be worked through, and society will be enormously richer for it. We aren’t in the position of John Anderton, pawns against a semi-omniscient Big Brother. We are more like George Jetson, the beneficiaries of technologies that know enough to, on average, make life run more smoothly. Data allows us to automatically create nuanced, useful knowledge about ourselves, each other, and the world around us. As a result, customers have started to expect a custom experience - something that only comes through Big Data analytics.


Field Cady at Think Big Analytics


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