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Tech News & Podcast | Africa

How Big Data is Transforming Business and Society

We live in the era of Big Data, where governments, organizations and marketers know, or can deduce, an increasing number of data items about aspects of our lives that in previous eras we could assume were reasonably private (e.g. our race, ethnicity, religion, politics, sexuality, interests, hobbies, health information, income, credit rating and history, travel history and plans, spending habits, decision-making capabilities and biases and much else). Devices to capture, collect, store and process data are becoming ever cheaper and faster, whilst the computational power to handle these data is continuously increasing. Digital technologies have made possible the ‘datafication’ of society, affecting all sectors and everyone’s daily life. The growing importance of data for the economy and society is unquestionable and more is to come.

Big Data as an Enabler of Growth but Harbinger of Ethical Challenges

Big Data is increasingly recognized as an enabling factor that promises to transform contemporary societies and industry. Far-reaching social changes enabled by datasets are increasingly becoming part of our daily life with benefits ranging from finance to medicine, meteorology to genomics, and biological or environmental research to statistics and business.

Data will reshape the way we produce, consume and live. Benefits will be felt in every single aspect of our lives, ranging from more conscious energy consumption and product, material and food traceability, to healthier lives and better health-care …. Data is the lifeblood of economic development: it is the basis for many new products and services, driving productivity and resource efficiency gains across all sectors of the economy, allowing for more personalised products and services and enabling better policy making and upgrading government services …. The availability of data is essential for training artificial intelligence systems, with products and services rapidly moving from pattern recognition and insight generation to more sophisticated forecasting techniques and, thus, better decision making …. Moreover, making more data available and improving the way in which data is used is essential for tackling societal, climate and environment-related challenges, contributing to healthier, more prosperous and more sustainable societies. It will for example lead to better policies to achieve the objectives of the European Green Deal. 

As mentioned, Big Data also creates value in many other domains including health care, government administration and education. The application of transparency and open government policies is expected to have a positive impact on many aspects of citizens’ lives. This will hopefully lead to the development of more democratic and participative societies by improved administrative efficiency, alongside perhaps more obvious uses such as better disease prevention in the health sector or self-monitoring in the education sector.

Big Data and Its Impact on Privacy

The impact of Big Data technologies on privacy (and thereby human dignity) ranges from group privacy and high-tech profiling, to data discrimination and automated decision making. It is even more significant if people disseminate personal data in the digital world at different levels of awareness throughout their main life phases. Here, people can often make themselves almost completely transparent for data miners who use freely accessible data from social networks and other data associated with an IP address for profiling purposes.

This ‘creep factor’ of Big Data, due to unethical and deliberate practices, bypasses the intent of privacy law. Such practices are allowed by advances in analyzing and using Big Data for revealing previously private individual data (or statistically close proxies for it) and often have the final aim of targeting and profiling customers.

Another concern in relation to Big Data is the possibility of the re-identification of the data subject after the process of anonymisation. This might occur using technologies of de-anonymisation made available by the increased computational power of modern day personal computers, enabling a trace back to the original personal data. Indeed, traditional anonymisation techniques, making each data entry non-identifiable by removing (or substituting) uniquely identifiable information, has limits: despite the substitution of users’ personal information in a dataset, de-anonymisation can be overcome in a relatively short period of time through simple links between such anonymous datasets, other datasets (e.g. web search history) and personal data. Re-identification of the data subject might also derive from the powerful insights produced when multiple and specific datasets from different sources are joined. This might allow interested parties to uniquely identify specific physical persons or small groups of persons, with varying degrees of certainty.

The re-identification of data poses serious privacy concerns: once anonymised (or pseudo-anonymised), data may be freely processed without any prior consent by the data subject, before the subject is then re-identified. The situation is exacerbated by the lack of adequate transparency regarding the use of Big Data: this affects the ability of a data subject to allow disclosure of his/her information and to control access to these data by third parties, also impacting civil rights.

It is advisable that organizations willing to use Big Data adopt transparent procedures and ensure that these procedures are easily accessible and knowable by the public. In this way, an ethical perspective would truly drive innovation and boundary setting, properly taking into account the individual’s need for privacy and self-determination.

Wrap Up

The rise of Big Data and the underlying ability to capture and analyse datasets from highly diversified contexts and generate novel, unanticipated knowledge, as well as AI developments relying on data, are capable of producing economic growth and bringing relevant benefits, both at the social and the individual level. This rapidly sprawling phenomenon is expected to have significant influence on governance, policing, economics, security, science, education, health care and much more.

The collection of Big Data and inferences based on them are sources enabling both economic growth and generation of value, with the potential to bring further improvement to everyday life in the near future. The examples span from road safety to health services, agriculture, retail, education and climate change mitigation. Possible improvements rely on the direct use and collection of Big Data or on inferences or ‘nowcasting’ based on them: new knowledge and insights are generated, as well as real-time reports and analyses with alerting purposes can be produced.

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