Big data | Timandra Harkness


Published in: 2016
Amazon Goodreads

Your smartphone stores all types of information digitally, which is amplified as new technology is added, such as accelerometers and GPS receivers. Every time you use a mobile phone, it stores digital information. Not just the numbers you call and how long you talk, but where you are when your phone is on. Many cell phones are preloaded with health-related apps that can track how many steps you take, how many calories you burn, and your heart rate. Today, many decisions are outsourced to “big data”. Instead of starting with a theory and testing it, we just gather enough data and see what patterns come out.

MOORE’S LAW. Your smartphone is more powerful than any computer in the world 50 years ago. The size reduction of electronic components, combined with processes that make them cheaper to produce, follows Moore’s Law (coined by Gordon Moore, founder of the microchip company Intel). Moore’s Law states that the amount of processing power in a chip doubles every two years while production costs fall.

FASTER, SMARTER ANALYTICS. The company Black Swan worked with a large pharmaceutical company to find out which geographical areas were about to be affected by seasonal diseases. Data analysts were able to identify the spread of colds down to zip codes based on sales history per drug, weather forecasts, web searches and social media posts. With targeted online advertising, they were able to reach the people who were most likely in need of medication.

SURVEILLANCE IS DOUBLE-EDGED. Much of the surveillance is for our own good. If you have constant feedback, loops of information that go between you, your body, your behavior and your environment, you can constantly adjust so that you can make more optimal decisions (for example smart watches). But large amounts of data mean a greater profiling potential; the algorithm can predict if your state will be exposed to crime or if your children are at risk of dropping out of school. In order to protect privacy, the EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) applies throughout the EU from 2018. This introduced much stricter limits on what personal data can be collected and stored and how they can be used.

BIG DATA IN MAINTENANCE AND LOANS. Statistics and big data can predict when your car will need a new oil filter, so that the workshop can have it ready in stock. By connecting the technical side of maintenance to information about logistics, transport and personnel, everything can be made more efficient. Big data are also used in payday loans by firms such as Wonga. Instead of just basing advertising on your behavior and taste, they also use what they know about your friends and acquaintances. If everyone is a good borrower who pays on time, chances are good that you are too. [Note: The story of Wonga did not end well]

STATISTICS AND AI. Using patterns from a population for predictions about individuals is one of the oldest problems in statistics. If you know the mean, as well as a few other things about how those data points spread, you can calculate the probability that a value will fall within a given range. Big data is often supplemented with AI to be able to load more information faster. Show enough brain scans for an Al algorithm and it can learn to sort them according to your criteria: male or female, musician or non-musician, normal or psychopath. Since AI itself has learned the best ways to distinguish between categories, we do not necessarily know what the differences are.

ALGORITHMIC ACCOUNTABILITY. Some argue that algorithms, if carefully designed, can overcome human biases and lead to more justice. But if people feel hurt by an algorithm’s decision, it’s hard to appeal. Data-driven employment decisions can go beyond the resume and the results of psychometric tests. They can take in other publicly available data, such as posts on social media. Other factors that can affect your chances of getting a job are how far away from your workplace that you live or your probability of sick leave.

SELF-PROPELLED SOCIETY. Internet of things (IoT) means that all technical devices soon will be connected. A network of automatic devices in direct communication with each other can monitor both safety and wear. The advantages of an automatic collection and transmission of information to a feedback system is that problems can be handled without human intervention. This frees up a lot of time and increases efficiency in society.

CRIME HAS GONE DIGITAL. Criminals are interested in hacking your computer in order to gain access to your bank details or photographs to see if there is anything worth blackmailing. They may also want to access your friends’ email addresses to say that you have lost all your money in a remote country and need them to transfer a few hundred dollars. There is an arms race between IT crime and IT security. One protection is encryption, which makes it easy to unlock a file but remarkably difficult to unlock.

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