Society is just beginning to understand the potential of ‘big data’. It’s estimated that 90% of the world’s data was created in the past few years, and the computing power needed to harness that information is growing quickly to keep up.
This rapid change means it’s important for policy makers to begin thinking now about the appropriate role of government in the field. Advancements in technology aren’t going away, but are only just coming to maturity — and we need to quickly figure out how to create a regulatory environment that balances privacy concerns with encouraging innovation that can unlock the incredible potential of data analytics. The Obama Administration’s review is an important start.
Recent news reports about the review’s results have focused on the potential misuse of big data, particularly ways it could exacerbate discriminatory hiring practices. But there are also a growing number of examples where big data can be used to protect against discrimination by rooting out the unfairness that sometimes accompanies human bias.
In one famous example, corporations have used analytics on vast consumer datasets to predict when women may become pregnant, so that they might market diapers and baby strollers to these women. In the wrong hands, those very same predictions could potentially be used to avoid hiring women who are likely to become pregnant in the near future.
While the government should take steps to prevent this type of corporate abuse, the sheer proliferation of data and technology will make it exceedingly difficult to prevent corporations from engaging in consumer analysis. Instead, we should learn to use the same data sets and analysis to identify and prevent abuse before it occurs. If, for example, a review of hiring decisions indicated that job candidates with a greater predicted likelihood of having children are being hired at different rates, policymakers could use that information to stop such practices. Similarly, researchers using big data to predict crime are finding it can also help exonerate inmates who may have been wrongly convicted.
We believe that any organization dealing with data – big or small – has a responsibility to safeguard individual data while developing new ways of using new technology and resources for the greater good.
Smart use of data may not represent a solution to everything, but by finding patterns in apparently random behavior, it has the potential to give us unique insights into many of the most intractable problems in society today. Discrimination is one of those problems. We support starting an intelligent debate over how to balance human necessities like privacy and security with society’s needs for justice and innovation. At HaystaqDNA, we’re eager to get this conversation started, and excited to explain how data doesn’t need to intrude on our boundaries to expand our horizons.
Michael Simon is President and co-founder of HaystaqDNA. In 2008, he ran the in-house Obama for America analytics department.