Big data: Friend or foe

In recent years, big data has shown us that it can benefit society in numerous areas, for example in healthcare and city planning. In the start, we were inspired to expand and use this technology to our advantage. However, is there a darker side to big data, and is there a line that we should not cross?

Big data facilitates businesses to understand their consumers, and consequently improve their services to cater to the targeted market. This gives businesses a great advantage to expand and maximize opportunities. This is extremely beneficial to the public if it is used for organizations that advocate welfare in society, such as healthcare or certain areas of the government.

A prominent example of how big data is able to benefit the healthcare sector its ability to personalize medication according to a patient’s medical history and DNA. In the case of cancer treatments, this technology saves patients from having to undergo countless tests to finally find the drug that reacts positively. Not only does this minimize wasted resources, it also saves patients from spending excess money on treatment.

With the help of big data, doctors will be able to predict illnesses and prevent them from occurring or escalating. This way, infections such as sepsis, which is the cause of death of 250 000 Americans annually, can be tackled at an earlier stage. Contagious diseases could also potentially be detected, thus preventing nationwide epidemics.

Another popular sector that makes use of big data is retail. Consumers nowadays change tastes quickly, and fast fashion companies are quick to help quench their thirst for trend. Consumers want to keep up with what is hot, but most still want to stay within their comfort zone; this is where big data comes in handy. For example, big data is able to analyze a customer’s history, and suggest items based off of what they have previously bought. Retailers also use functions like ‘social media sentiment analysis’ to understand consumers. This is the study of emotions that are portrayed through writing. Retailers can use this information to find out what is trendy, and hence produce items based off of that information. However, what may not be known to the public is that fast fashion heavily damages the environment and that textile dyeing is one of the largest polluters of clean water. The big data we use to lure customers into buying new products now does not sound as good as it used to. To what extent should big data be supported in industries that do not directly improve social and environmental welfare?

In relation to social media sentiment analysis, an infamous story regarding Cambridge Analytica shows that there is indeed a darker side to big data. In short, Cambridge Analytica collected users’ Facebook data, such as their biography, liked pages, and friends. They were then targeted with advertisements based on their personal data for President Trump’s election campaign. The actions of Cambridge Analytica was not a data breach, as Facebook allows researchers to access user data, and all users consent to this when their Facebook account is created. However, it is still illegal for the data to be used in favor for advertising purposes. This still, however, makes one think, to what extent should we use big data to grow our organizations, and should there be a law implemented regarding that? When will we start allowing big data to influence all our decisions in life?