Big data: how much is too much?

Big data could soon allow us to shape public policy, financial products, healthcare and education to suit our personal needs. But are we willing to sacrifice our privacy for products and services that are more relevant to us? Manuel A. Rivera Raba, CEO of Grupo Expansión and member of the Global Future Council on Information and Entertainment explains the possibilities and pitfalls of the new digital age.

What is the state of digital information today?

The infrastructure to allow people to access digital information has surpassed what anyone could have imagined. Slowly, we are getting to the point where everyone has a digital phone. That means we now have an enormous amount of data about users we didn’t have before.

I think we’re going to ask in the upcoming years: what data do we use and what for? The experience is becoming more personalized in real time. With big data we make everything context relevant, but how far should we push this? What are the limits of gathering information, often without people even knowing it, even if it means we can offer things more relevant to them?

What are the key trends that we should be aware of?

One trend is natural language. We can listen to online conversations and that can be turned into data. The technology already exists. We’re not fully engaging in it because it’s scary: we are having this conversation on Skype, and then you could go on Facebook and there is an advertisement for something we were talking about.

The sheer amount of data is also something we need to keep looking at. We have all of this data but no one knows how to process it. I heard just recently that in the next two months we will gather more information than all the information that existed before it combined.

Machine learning is another trend. Your device is learning every day more about who you are and what is important to you. Your life is being downloaded. There is of course a huge risk to all of this. If there is a technological glitch one day, and our lives now depend on the information on our devices, that could be very dangerous.

What would this ‘digital glitch’ look like, and what would the consequences be?

We probably don’t talk about this as much as we should. Do you know your PIN number, bank account number, phone number? We expect our devices to know this for us. You just assume the device knows all.

If there were a glitch, those numbers on the screen disappear. You don’t remember your PIN, because it was saved on your device and possibly you don’t even know who to call because all of those phone numbers are online!

Add to that insurance, health care, savings, etc. We have enormous incentives to go paperless, and more and more of us are doing it. But what happens if one day all that data is gone or compromised?

What do you think your Council should do to help this?

Our Global Future Council should take the opportunity to explore what will happen in the next decade, building a roadmap to prepare for what is about to come. If we lay out a plan with governments and entrepreneurs for these technologies, they might then be willing to incorporate that into their own strategic planning.

The problems of privacy and digital divide could worsen if we don’t take the appropriate measures. It’s important to deal with that because the debate about our privacy online will become more pronounced. Human beings are not good at adapting to new things, up until the time they need to.

Where do you think we’ll be by 2030?

Our everyday lives will be completely different. Working, education, the very definition of being present will be different. I think that the face-to-face experience will take a lot more value. Live experiences will be worth more, not only in terms of money but in terms of human values.

Digital access will become like electricity. It will be available to almost everyone and it will be less relevant because it will just a be a commodity. But the very few that don’t have it will miss out in a lot more ways than they used to. So much will be coming through our connected devices, not being plugged in will be a problem.

Polling could change drastically. We’ve seen a few recent examples where polling got it wrong, but using online data could give us insight to how people will ultimately vote with much more accuracy.

Public policy could also be shaped around the data. Using data from search patterns, we could see how people imagine their dream homes. We could then tailor public housing programmes or home ownership loans around it. If we look at that data, we can understand what people really care about, then create policy around that.

I’m not sure the world is ready to accept that, but the tools to make those predictions with extreme accuracy already exist.

What about privacy?

People are not really paying attention to their privacy. A massive legal document appears on your screen and you just click ‘accept’ because the legal language will put you to sleep. People want to know that the boundaries aren’t being crossed, but they don’t even know what the boundaries are.

One idea would be to have some clear bullet points: do you understand this network is public, the world will see it forever, and in some ways it’s no longer really yours? Make it so people are aware. The truth is if you don’t want your information to be available on the internet, you shouldn’t be posting.

What would you like to see in 2030? What would be on your ‘wish list’?

Several things! Information could be delivered in real time and highest relevance to yourself. So the morning after a debate, my computer knows which issues I care about and only those parts of the debate have been picked out for me.

Healthcare could see great leaps in efficiency. Your case could be compared with millions from around the world within seconds, making a more accurate diagnosis and treatment possible.

If all this information is being properly used and managed, we could be creating a better world. The possibilities are endless!

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