Big Data: the New Water or the New Oil?

In definitional terms, big data is, as we are repeatedly told, a matter of volume, velocity, variety and sometimes veracity. But perhaps as a result of a fifth v, the vagueness of this definition, those discussing the present and future impact of big data on society routinely describe big data more figuratively and evocatively. Often, this metaphorical definition takes the form of a liquid. Streams of big data flow and cascade between – and sometimes leak from – organisations. A recent Economist post extended on this contrast in a development perspective: developed countries have a deluge of data, while developing countries are suffering a drought.

The repeated use of this ‘liquid’ metaphor intersects with questions about quality of life in interesting ways. How big data is symbolised affects how it is perceived by readers and writers alike, which in turn influences expectations about the impact of big data on our collective quality of life. Perhaps the crux of this question resides in whether big data as a fluid resource is more appropriately characterised as either water or oil. If big data is ‘the new water’, we might view this phenomenon optimistically, seeing it as a life-improving – even life-saving – resource, to be deployed in the service of good policy and practice in areas such as environmental sustainability and humanitarian relief. Undoubtedly, a wide array of successful such uses already exist, as outlined in a forthcoming paper of which I am a co-author (Taylor et al forthcoming).

Yet one might also adopt a more pessimistic standpoint, wherein big data might more accurately be characterised as ‘the new oil’. ‘Big data’ as a term betrays the industrial origins of such data sources, and the drive to maximise value from data as a resource continues to underpin much technological development in this area. Generally speaking, data is collected, stored and manipulated with raw economic incentives in mind; research and non-profit efforts often struggle to keep pace up and related tools and technologies. Moreover, adverse effects often emerge from the misuse or abuse of big data, particularly in regard to individual privacy. Data as a resource thus requires stewardship in order to protect from the harmful effects of its misuse, and such efforts will often run up against the powerful interests of corporations and governments.

These two poles of understanding – data as a clean, life-giving resource like water; and data as a dirty, damaging resource like oil – offer a framework within which the challenges relating to the future use of big data sources in business, government and non-profit contexts can be better conceptualised. My own perspective is grounded by my study of the use (and sometimes the misuse) of big data in academic contexts, especially the social sciences. Here, the potential for big data is clear: academics can ask and answer entirely new questions about the world around us using transformational new data sources and techniques. Longstanding theories are being newly validated or refuted.

Again, of course, the dark side of big data is never far from the surface: the sensitivities around the potential invasion of personal privacy may be enhanced in an academic context. Yet perhaps with decades of experience conducting rigorous empirical research, often on sensitive topics, academic institutions hold some of the tools – such as institutional review boards and peer review mechanisms – to protect against the dangerous power of big data. Moreover, interdisciplinary research, bringing together scholars from different fields with different modes of understanding, may also guide scholarship in ethically grounded directions.

The question about whether big data is ‘the new water’ or ‘the new oil’ feels like an important one to ask, but has proved a difficult one to answer. Inevitably, the story of big data to date has been told through its biggest successes and biggest scandals – but just as water and oil don’t mix, this coverage has given a rather dichotomous view of the power of data for good or ill. Through our project – and its publications – we hope to have offered a more grounded, empirically-driven understanding of the uses to which big data can be put, across the ethical spectrum.

References

Taylor, Linnet, Josh Cowls, Ralph Schroeder, & Eric T. Meyer (forthcoming). Big Data and Positive Change in the Developing World: Challenges and Opportunities. Forthcoming in Policy & Internet.

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