These days, everyone seems to be talking about “big data.” Engineers, researchers, lawyers, executives and self-trackers all tout the surprising insights they can get from applying math to large data sets. The rhetoric of big data is often overblown, exaggerated and contradictory, but there’s an element of truth to the claim that data science is helping us to know more about our world, our society and ourselves.
Data scientists use big data to deliver personalized ads to Internet users, to make better spell checkers and search engines, to predict weather patterns, perform medical research, learn about customers, set prices and plan traffic flow patterns. Big data can also fight crime, whether through the use of automated license-plate readers or, at least theoretically, through the collection of vast amounts of “metadata” about our communications and associations by the National Security Agency.
Big data allows us to know more, to predict and to influence others. This is its power, but it’s also its danger. The entities that can harness the power of math applied to large sets of personal information can do things that used to be impossible. Many of these new uses are good, but some of them aren’t. For example, if our “personalized prices” can be based on our race or sex, or if our college admissions are based on things like ZIP code or car ownership, we might want to think more deeply about the kinds of big decisions our big data can be used for. We’re creating a society based on data, and we need to make sure that we create a society that we want to live in.