Personal data makes up the sum of our lives – but how often do we use the phrase ‘big data’ without fully understanding what it means?
We know – or should do – that pretty much everything we do these days leaves a digital footprint of some kind, but how many people think about or know what happens to that data once we’ve created it? Or that it’s not just what we do online, but offline as well – if it involves carrying a smartphone or using something like an Oyster travel card that knows where you’ve been and when.
Creating more data about ourselves every single day, we also produce an evermore detailed picture of who we are and what we like and do, that is easy for advertisers to track, gather and then monetise, either by tracking us online or selling that data on.
Scary, right? And more than a little annoying. The most obvious manifestation is targeted ads, that follow you around the web once you’ve searched for something.
But, as the advertisers don’t actually know you, although they’re trying very hard to act as if they do, that information is very often inaccurate – not least if you’be bought a present for a friend or relative of the opposite gender, for example, or for a child.
So big data is omnipresent, evergrowing and often wrong – but what else is it? As a primer, this piece by BBC Radio presenter Timandra Harkness is my new go-to.
Smart on how data enriches our lives while also succinctly flagging up the issues with letting artifical intelligence overtake the human variety, she sums up thus:
“Big data has immense potential, no doubt about that. I met people who are using it to fight disease, to build a global database of destructive and dangerous insects, to prevent plane crashes, and to look into the darkest corners of the universe. But when it comes to human beings, it can be too big for its boots. And the fact we’re so willing to hand over life-changing decisions to big data says less about its true capabilities than it does about our lack of trust in ourselves, and in each other.”