Big Data’s Bigger Optics Issues and Biggest Questions

With industries increasingly relying on big data strategies, ethical and purpose-related questions are becoming more common. For trade groups, now might be a good time to do a temperature check.

Big data raises a lot of questions—and depending on your industry, one of those questions might be when enough is enough.

We’ve already been wondering this for a while—Gartner sounded the alarm on this topic last summer when it suggested the hype around big data had reached the “trough of disillusionment.”

Based on a series of recent news stories, I’d say we’re pretty far down the trough and backlash is common these days. Among the stories I’ve seen:

Members of the American Farm Bureau headed to Washington last month to meet with legislators, and one of the biggest topics—as noted by the Associated Press—was, surprisingly, data security. See, as farming has become so reliant on technology for efficiency purposes, Bureau members have expressed concerns that this increasingly granular information could put the industry’s interests at odds with the seed industry, commodities speculators, or even (imagine this image) “an overall-clad Edward Snowden.”

The Direct Marketing Association has had to respond to a lot of big questions about its data-heavy industry practices in recent months—with comments from President Obama and a 60 Minutes report representing only the tip of the iceberg for the industry.

Google’s efforts to help track the spread of the flu using big data methodology proved to be all for naught and wildly inaccurate, with researchers accusing the company of “big data hubris.” That’s gotta hurt.

The online advertising field’s push to rely on data targeting to automate and personalize ads faced some challenging headlines last week on the high levels of bot traffic out there—a situation the chairman of the Interactive Advertising Bureau called an out-and-out “crisis” for the industry.

And, of course, the biggest tech story of last week, Facebook’s $2 billion purchase of the virtual reality company Oculus, which led to yet another round of hand-wringing about the way the social network mines user data. The purchase itself was hugely controversial, as proven by a key example: A major public backer of Oculus, Minecraft creator Markus “Notch” Persson, dropped his plans to port the mega-hit game to the device, calling Facebook “creepy.”

We need a point of view on this issue, and that requires some broader, long-term conversations.

Data Insecurity

To me, each of these cases represents something of an image problem for data-heavy industries, issues where the numbers aren’t the issue so much as the implications.

If industries you’d never think of as massive data hubs (like farming) are suddenly reaching crises of conscience, clearly there are bigger questions to address as part of an industrywide discussion. If Obama is attempting to deflect criticism of his administration’s data practices by questioning the private sector’s practices, that raises concerns of industries going Minority Report on the outside world.

But don’t get me wrong here: In-depth data analytics (big or small) is immensely valuable. That’s why we care so much about it, and why it’s going to be with us for a long time. We’re not going to be in the “trough of disillusionment” forever. Eventually we’re going to come out on the other side, fully at terms with the idea of applying granular data to business decisions, without the hype that led us to question it in the first place.

That said, I think the goal for associations—especially those representing industries that would directly benefit from in-depth research—is to get a feel for our members’ comfort level, as well as the public’s. We need a point of view on this issue, and that requires some broader, long-term conversations.

It’s sort of the flip side of Joe Rominiecki’s piece on big data from a few weeks ago. The data we ask our members for is valuable, but we have to prove we’re giving something of value in return when asking for it. But what about the data your industry asks for from the outside world—or, in the case of the American Farm Bureau, the information one industry asks for from another one?

This is going to be a bigger issue as time goes on. We need to be ready with good answers.


Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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