Big Data needs to ‘clean’ up its act

Big Data may be ‘the new oil’ but to succeed in the long run it needs to be more transparent, says CLSA keynote speaker Jer Thorp.
Jer Thorp. (Image courtesy of Assignment Asia)
Jer Thorp. (Image courtesy of Assignment Asia)

Jer Thorp, formerly ‘data artist in residence’ at The New York Times and co-founder of The Office for Creative Research, says a growing number of investors and businesses think Big Data could be ‘the new oil’.

But speaking yesterday at CLSA’s annual investor conference in Hong Kong, Thorp warned of the underlying ethical dangers and how data companies which failed to heed them might wither in the long run.

Thorp drew the parallel with oil accompanied by an image of the JR Ewing -- the decidedly unethical oil magnate played by the late Larry Hagman in the blockbuster 1980s TV series “Dallas”.

Considering the potential money to be made from Big Data there are plenty of bankers and investors these days angling to be the next JR. Now that Twitter has filed for an IPO with the US Securities and Exchange Commission, after Facebook’s $16 billion IPO last year, the digital-data story is increasingly on financiers’ minds.

But Thorp's key message was aimed at the ethics of how the data mined by these companies is employed.

Thorp said he has used plenty of data from people who are unaware he has done so. For example, he has used data from people’s locator services on their mobile phones, or their Twitter activity, to map behavioural patterns -- some for profit, some just for fun.

He joked that as a Canadian he believes in using data to make money but also in “all that utopian, socialist stuff”. If companies treat Big Data as ‘the new oil’ they must change the way data is deployed.

The idea of something being ‘the new oil’ may initially appeal to shareholders and corporate executives, due to promise of massive rewards. But Thorp said oil had not been exactly that great an experience, as he presented a barrage of images showing ecological devastation and human conflict. If Big Data is exploited in a similarly cavalier way, it will create chaos and some companies will be hurt.

Using ways to measure things can be put to good use, from tracking (and potentially stopping) the spread of diseases to untangling traffic jams. But the politics around privacy often block progress, or are so outdated that they won’t prevent abuse, he said.

“The challenge is how to share public data with all stakeholders,” he said, meaning the people – all of us – who contribute personal information, wittingly or not.

The Snowden revelations about NSA spying has launched data ethics into the mainstream discussion, Thorp warned. Younger people are far more aware of such issues and will become more vocal with time. “Companies that become data-ethical may gain a competitive advantage as consumers become more aware of what’s being done with their data,” he said. Just as Big Oil spurred the green revolution, Big Data is going to spark the ‘clean’ revolution.

The next generation of legal and financial battles will focus on data ownership or data custody, Thorp said. Companies that do a better job of informed consent around how they use consumers’ data – those that build a business on trust – should have a more stable business model in the long run.

He said Facebook’s user agreement comprised “nineteen pages of indecipherable jargon” and that companies should be more straightforward when providing a service in return for personal data.

However, Thorp suggested the marketplace is better able than regulators to provide such a covenant. He described the challenge of making coherent policy around data-use “intractable”, because laws and rulings will struggle to keep pace with technological and social changes.

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