The Age of the Unregulated Algorithm

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There can be no doubt that the use of big data analytics holds great promise as it relates to delivering numerous social and economic benefits. From the perspective of science and research, the introduction of new techniques and methodologies based on big data analytics represent a potential quantum leap for how discoveries are realized across scientific fields of endeavor. Case in point, some will argue that scientific modeling is an outdated practice given the uncanny amounts of data available to researchers.

Supercomputers can easily mix, mash and detect complex patterns and relationships that were previously impossible to conceptualize. The delivery of public services is another area where big data applications can yield massive benefits in terms of economic development. If the public sector could sufficiently exploit available datasets (and sadly enough they aren’t doing so presently), they can: 1) enhance transparency in the public sector; 2) deliver more efficient, innovative and customized public services; and 3) facilitate more expedient policy creation and decision making processes.

Still, with these benefits and more to be obtained, a number of critical questions still remain: What are the risks to foundational values arising from big data analytics? What are the potential impacts of big data analytics on fairness and coherence? Are the necessary levels of knowledge and competence available within society to adopt big data analytics? Are current policy frameworks suited to the use of big data analytics in an era in which data is open, re-used, and re-combined in order to bring significant benefits?

As the debate rages on about how do we best take advantage of the gazillion bytes of data that exist, what is clear is that the industry has to reach a point of self-regulation or it will continue to be regulated by those who don’t understand what they’re doing (and society will be disadvantaged significantly more than it will be able to accrue the benefits of big data).

Cue the personal data economy! This shift in direction is about addressing the core issue of privacy through promoting greater awareness around the use of personal data as a resource. Presently, our data is primarily a transaction tool characterized by user identification and consumer purchasing habits. This model empowers (and emboldens) corporations and governments. Even worse, the fears and anxieties around privacy obscure the greater opportunities for improving the lives of individuals.

This new paradigm — the personal data economy — will be driven by more educated end users. The individual will be more powerful because he/she understands data ownership, and how they can optimally share their data but with greater control over different aspects of their anonymity. The result will be that the major features shaping the commercial environment will be “value-creation”, “transparency” and “openness”.

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