What’s big data and why does it matter?

Photo Credit: Amanda Mills

Perhaps it seemed a little curious last month when The Guardian, the first newspaper to break the NSA surveillance story, posted an online video entitled, “Why your data matters to us.”  Of course, when it says “data,” the British paper isn’t referring to readers’ phone records.  Still, the effort to collect their information – however minimal – may seem in conflict with the paper’s call to safeguard privacy.  Most websites, including The Guardian’s, respond to this concern by pointing to the benefits of tracking and storing consenting users’ preferences.  The reported objective is to enhance one’s online experience – whether more immediately through targeted ads or as in The Guardian’s case, through continued award-winning journalism funded in part by those ads.

It’s difficult to refute that big data – the vast sum of information we regularly and often unconsciously share via social media, online browsing, and wearable tech devices – makes for a more personalized web experience.  Just think how convenient it is when Netflix shares film and program recommendations based on your viewing history.  Even much of the music you listen to both on- and offline has been pre-selected on the basis of data sets, reports The Atlantic.

In the latest episode of SciTech Now, Hari Sreenivasan speaks with Eric Colson, former Director of Algorithms and Analytics at Netflix, to discuss how big data is impacting our lives.  Stitch Fix, the e-commerce company where Colson now works, uses it to provide stylish clothing options to those of us who would rather skip the usual trip to the mall.  And though Stitch Fix customers are arguably offering up some of their most personal data, including dress and pant size, Colson doesn’t believe online shoppers are any more vulnerable than other web users, reasoning that a breakdown in data security would lead to a breakdown in customer trust.  And that is in no company’s best interest.

Still, not everyone is as comfortable with the idea that so much of what they do online is being tracked.  Indeed, as I type, I can’t help, but be momentarily distracted by the home decor ads appearing in the margins of my open browser.  How did Facebook know I wanted that fabric in green?

Professor Joseph Turow, author of The Daily You: How the New Advertising Industry is Defining Your Identity and Your World, argues that convenience online may not only come at the price of our privacy, but also individuality.  Filtering how we experience the Web ultimately limits the variety of choices we make, says Turow.

Perhaps the irony in all of this is that while many of us aren’t exactly comfortable with the fact that so much of our data is being collected, few of us actually attempt to reform our behavior.  Indeed, when it comes to the latest and greatest free apps, Android and iPhone users, alike, frequently breeze through the terms and conditions and in the process, may grant a great deal of outside access to their mobile devices.  Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University explored this paradox, identifying 10 popular apps that mine our phones and tablets, chief among them Brightest Flashlight.  Why must a flashlight app know the location of its users, one may wonder.

This tendency to download before reading the fine print is perhaps best summarized by the title of a recent SF Gate article: “Our online privacy is sacred, unless we can get free stuff.”  But nothing is ever truly free.  So, in the case of the Web, what are we using as currency?  The information we give back?

The topic of big data is no doubt a divisive one.  Still, one would be hard-pressed to find even the wariest of Luddites refute its power.  Analysis of all the information we generate both on- and offline yields remarkable insight into human behavior and therefore, can be incredibly valuable.  But wariest of Luddites, if you’re reading, take comfort in fact that there are still a few things only we humans can do.  Even at a company like Stitch Fix, which functions largely on algorithms, it is fashion consultants of the human variety who have the ultimate say.