Last time, I wrote about the measures we have in our lives. We track and record finances, behavior, medical data, and assessments (including those related to our thinking), and then we fix these against ever-smaller increments of time. Measures have been a part of our life for a long time, and they provide both benefits and risks. What’s different now, as exemplified by the new Apple watch, is the scale of measurement.
What does that mean? How is measurement in our time (and reaching into a more data-intensive future) different?
Constant. Measurement is becoming a more pervasive part of our lives. We’re moving from occasionally having a few specific measurements taken to a much broader range of data input from web surfing, our tell-all personal devices, our use of tools (such as cars) that snitch on us, making ourselves available for scans (of RFIDs, credit cards, and access keys), and, of course, being monitored by the ubiquitous closed-circuit television cameras.
Comprehensive. What the many devices in our lives measure continues to expand. Where we are, what we buy, how much exercise we get, physiological data such as blood pressure, how we drive, what catches our attention, how far we read in books, what opinions we value, complaints we make, who we include in our networks, how much money we make, how much money we owe, what credentials we have, and on and on with no apparent limit has become fodder for analysis.
Contextualized. While many of our records used to be collected and stored separately, more and more our records are being combined. They are being used to put our choices, actions, opinions, and relationships into broader contexts that allow analysis, assessment, categorization, and creation of predictive patterns that can be used by others to serve us or control us.
Controlled. In general, we don’t know who has our data and how they use it. We have few options with regard to privacy, availability to others, correction of mistakes, challenging how it’s processed, understanding what it reveals, or limiting how it’s used.
Corrupted. The ability to store, analyze, connect, apply algorithms, share, and manipulate data that has real consequence in people’s lives has reached new levels of possibility in recent years. In some cases, where big data provides real value, it does so for the benefit of others, primarily for the owners of the records and the tools. (Though, there clearly are cases where it can benefit the individual, such as more complete and clear health records.)
But the correct use, based in solid experience and founded on legitimate theory is not the whole story. Because much of this is new, patterns can be elusive, are relevant, and incomplete. Sometimes this is because the boxes people design to sort individuals out (such as demographics) do not reflect who the people are. Sometimes, because making a case with numbers can be persuasive, the algorithms used and the associations among data do not reflect reality. They may even be based on nothing more than untested hunches. There is renewed interest in “small data,” but this comes only after overconfidence in big data has led to mistakes.
Clearly, there is a lot of promise in our ability to measure and understand ourselves, our society, and our world. For instance, the potential for treating disease with better data on the behavior and genetics of individuals offers hope for future health care. But, for all that is promised, we need to include safeguards that respect the rights of individuals, their aspirations, their need to control their own fate, their freedom of speech and association, and much more implied by the concerns mentioned above.
Because of the rapid change in the data sphere, the economic interests involved, the complexity of the issues, and the way legitimate interests overlap and come into conflict, putting limits in place will be difficult. As is often the case, public policy is likely to be driven by disasters and how they are communicated. But that’s not a foregone conclusion. We could instead study, discuss, and reach understandings about the implications of these changes before a tidal wave of emotion-laden challenges begin to make headlines.
|Escrito por Peter Andrews|
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