Taking Big Brother and big business out of big data
It’s no secret that some businesses are already experts at mining data for commercial advantage and concerns that big data equals big brother are never going to go away, but it’s not all bad news. EMC used the London event as a platform for organisations that delve into data for more humanitarian projects, echoing the “Human Face” agenda.
Jake Porway is a data analyst who had grown tired of “working on apps that make comfortable lives ever so slightly more comfortable”. His not-for-profit company, DataKind, brings data scientists together with social organisations “for the service of humanity”, as the company’s catchphrase puts it.
He describes how they work with diverse organisations, from healthcare to public transport, repurposing reams of collected data into accessible information that can help improve services.
“Data has been described as the new oil, but it’s crude oil and has to be refined to increase the statistical literacy of the population,” he said.
Passionate about his mission, Porway envisages a world where data is a tool to spark change from the ground up, rather something that comes top-down from governments and big business. He warns against those that want to keep information secret and mysterious, the people that make big data synonymous with big brother.
Highlighting the diversity of data and the benefits it can deliver, US company aWhere showcased a project aimed at eradicating malaria. In this instance, the data comes from information embedded in pixels in satellite photographs.
“Pixels are a data source in an emerging science. Our technology can use them to identify the spectral signature of water that encourages mosquito habitats,” explained Dave Lundberg, chief operations officer.
Analysis that would take weeks or even months for people on the ground is carried out in hours with the location intelligence platform, which extracts actionable insights from agricultural, environmental and public health data. “Data in itself isn’t interesting – it’s the insight that’s valuable. The context lets you understand cause and then you can make informed decisions,” he said.
Like Porway, Lundberg advocates for the democratisation of data, turning it into national asset that will help developing nations achieve sustainability more quickly through better local intelligence.
What happens next is likely to be even more spectacular. The smartphone is just the first of a new wave of personal devices that will be used for metering, monitoring and remote management of everything from personal healthcare to security. Smart sensors will proliferate, all of them generating data.