The Promise and Peril of Big Data

‘Big data’ is a term that describes the vast amounts information being collected and processed as the world’s technological prowess grows at an astonishing rate. What differentiates big data from regular old data is the three v’s, velocity, variety, and volume. Velocity describes the speed at which the information is initially received, transferred, and processed into a usable form for analysis. Variety and volume are categorized by the sheer quantity of data received, both in amount and in diversity. You can see for yourself the growth of big data both as a term and as a tool by checking the Google Trends display of ‘big data’ searches. Analytical programs such as Google Trends are made possible through the collection of big data, and will become more advanced and accurate as our understanding of this new phenomenon rises.

The future of big data is strong, but potentially frightening. As it grows, big data will have a growing impact on the functioning of the world economy and society in general. Whilst the increasingly pervasive presence of big data in our daily lives may be met with hesitance, the possibilities for its use will likely overcome any backlash. Positive uses of big data such as fighting crime and managing healthcare offer the potential to increase living standards by improving public safety, health, and longevity. Valid concerns about data privacy will need to be addressed, but are unlikely to stop continued big data collection and application.

Privacy is an increasingly important issue in today’s world. CCTV cameras track your every move, and tech firms monitor your every click online. This data collection and monitoring has the potential to make nations more secure, and websites more useful.  However, it could also be used to track your movements, influence your thoughts, and manipulate your decisions.  Is it a fair trade off? How much privacy and personal freedom are we willing to trade for a little more national security and shopping convenience? This is not an easy question to answer, but it’s a conversation that needs to be had.

In order to make an informed judgment about these privacy trade-offs, we must consider some of the practical applications of big data. One example of a beneficial use of big data and surveillance that has proven successful at cutting crime is a technology being deployed by Ross McNutt’s firm Persistent Surveillance Systems. With a small plane and a 192 mega-pixel camera, his team takes aerial photos of a targeted city at regular intervals. Now ‘photos of a city’ may sound like a small advancement for crime fighting, if an advancement at all, but let me propose to you a scenario. A drive-by shooting occurs in a poor part of town. Police resources are limited, the car skids into the distance, perhaps a change of vehicles occurs, and the criminals disband. No leads. Now, in McNutt’s world with this ‘Eye in the Sky’ technology, there are leads. The car can be tracked down frame by frame, with the ability to see individuals and vehicles move pixel by pixel on a near real-time map. This is not just theoretical. Within weeks of this technology being implemented in Juarez, Mexico, an otherwise unsolvable drug cartel hit on a Mexican police officer was solved.

Pair this technology with big data analytics and we have a crime stopping masterpiece. With new advances in machine learning, a computer could be fed these images and trained to spot irregularities, notifying police when unusual circumstances occur. This has real potential in aiding the fight against drug cartels, stopping gang violence, and decreasing overall rates of crime.

However, would you want your every move stored on a server, your position constantly known to law enforcement and the government?  Living in a Western democracy, it is easy to take basic safeguards for granted like free elections, freedom of the press, separation of government powers, and rule of law.  However, these protections do not exist everywhere.  Big data analytics in the hands of Kim Jong-un might well be used to further centralise power, micro-manage the economy, and suppress political opponents. In other words, to build a techno dystopian society.

The future will bring more big data analytics. Each aspect of your life will be targeted, your shopping preferences, holiday plans, employment potential, the possibilities are endless. With the vast swathes of information that can be collected from our devices, many of our actions will be increasingly pinpointed and analysed.

A current battle that will have a large impact on the future of big data is the fight for net neutrality. Net neutrality is the principle that governments and internet service providers (ISPs) must not discriminate against or give preference to any aspect of the internet, from the type of customer to the websites that they browse. The fight for net neutrality in the United States looks like it will be lost as the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) moves to crack down on the free internet, giving power to ISPs to regulate the web as they please. Losing net neutrality would be a large step backwards for personal rights as free access to the internet plays such an important role in modern life. Big data would be impacted by these changes as companies who are given preferential treatment by ISPs would gain a significant boost in web traffic, and as such be able to collect more data. Companies not favoured in a post net neutrality world would see their data stores decline as their traffic is throttled. As it stands, our data is going to be tracked one way or another, so it should at least be our right to determine which firms, preferably socially conscious ones, are the benefactors of receiving our traffic.

It is a tricky dilemma to balance the benefits of advanced data technology with the importance of data privacy. The potential advancements in the health sector are likely to be a great benefit to society, but we need to remain cautious about why, how, and what data is collected, stored, and used. Overall, big data will emerge as one of the revolutions of the early 21st century, but at a cost to our privacy. It is a hard trade to stomach, but the future is exciting nonetheless.

Dean Franklet is a third year economics and finance student at the University of Canterbury where he is President of the largest commerce society on campus. Spending his life in Texas and then New Zealand with a few other stops along, he gives a unique global viewpoint to portray in his writing.

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Why Solitude Is Necessary for Self-Improvement

Never in history have we had so much instant communication with others, whether they’re in the same town or on the other side of the world. Our busy lives in large communities mean that our communication with friends and family is often through electronic devices rather than in person and face-to-face. And even when we are physically together, we can still spend most of our time on our smartphones.

Ironically, our advanced communication devices can leave us feeling isolated, and this can lead to either loneliness or solitude. While the former can lead to depression, the latter is something entirely different. We need to choose it consciously by leaving our tech aside to be alone with our thoughts.

The Need for Solitude

Although we are social beings by nature, all of us require periods of solitude where we can reconnect with ourselves. Being “disconnected” is a problem because it tends to manifest as a lack of concentration. We are never present, we’re always thinking of what’s next on the agenda, either for work or for our personal lives, and our minds wander off when we least expect it.

We need to recharge our inner battery so that we can regain a connection with ourselves. Interim solutions for recharging can be a night out with friends or having a conversation that doesn’t include electronic devices. However, it can also be a good idea to spend some time in solitude periodically so that we can regain our inner focus.

Solitude can be physical or mental. It may not be practical for you to escape to a secluded private island, but you can cultivate a tranquil space in your mind; a place you go to be alone with your thoughts. Meditation is an excellent method for developing mental clarity, as are other methods for quiet self-reflection like prayer, yoga, tai chi, and other eastern disciplines.

Becoming Comfortable with Solitude

As social beings, most of us are uncomfortable with solitude. When we’re alone, we have to think, and many of us are unfamiliar not only with how to think but where to begin. We’re acquainted with distractions but not with the lack of them. We can’t truly know who we are or what we might want from life unless we spend some time with ourselves, a journey we can commence through solitude.

We’re bombarded with information telling us we’re not good enough. We’re told we always need a better electronic device, a better love life, a healthier diet, a slimmer and trimmer body, a better hairstyle; whatever it is, we could always do better. Many people aren’t comfortable being alone with themselves because they think they’re not good enough. This is a counterproductive way of thinking because you are who you were created to be. Making time for yourself needn’t be unkind, unloving, or even anti-social. Rather, it can be a way to ensure that you’re the best person you can be, which will benefit you and those around you.

Benefits of Solitude

When we set aside time for solitude, we allow time for introspection and deep thinking. Introspection is the process of looking inside ourselves, examining who we are, determining areas that need improvement, and evaluating our goals and aspirations. It’s an essential part of becoming a better person and making a more meaningful contribution.

Solitude can help us to become self-confident, self-sufficient, and mindful. Mindfulness is being aware of your surroundings and your actions, and accepting your feelings as legitimate. This can help you become more self-assured in your feelings and opinions rather than having to rely on others for approval.

Solitude can also help you identify your feelings and get to know yourself better. This can help you become comfortable in your own skin and find enjoyment in every day experiences. As you come to understand who and what you are, the joy of authentic living can slowly become more important than materialistic pursuits, freeing you to act in more altruistic and philanthropic ways.

What You Can Do

There are many ways that you can cultivate moments of solitude. Here are three suggestions.

Meditate: This is a practice of reflection and focusing the mind in order to achieve heightened levels of awareness. In theory, you can meditate anywhere, on the bus, on the train, in the elevator. However, if you are a beginner you should find a quiet space where you can be alone. It takes discipline and practice to be able to completely shut out your surroundings and achieve the single minded focus necessary for meditation.

A common meditation trick is to focus your attention on a single physical object. For example, you could sit by yourself in a quiet space, in a comfortable meditation position, and light a single candle. Gazing at the candle flame will focus your attention, causing other ideas and worries that you had been holding onto to slowly fade away.

Keep a journal: Writing your thoughts in a journal is an excellent way to track your progress, collect useful ideas, set short and long term goals, and ask questions of yourself. You may discover a recurring theme that you can learn from or gain a new appreciation of yourself.

Spend some time alone: Set aside time for yourself each week. Take a walk, go for a run, attend a concert, or take a day trip by yourself.

Before You Go

Periods of solitude, as opposed to loneliness, can improve mental health and reduce stress. They can improve focus and mental clarity, and thus help to spark your creativity. Don’t give in to social pressure or believe that you’re somehow selfish just for wanting to spend a few hours on your own. Not only can your private and professional life benefit from moments of solitude – only when you’re happy in yourself can you be truly happy working for the benefit of others.

Sandra Moncada is a cycling enthusiast, who frequently escapes to hang out with her literary and movie heroes. She is vitamin D’s biggest fan, who is passionate about meditation, Pilates and beating stress. When she’s not floating in the ocean or her outdoor pool, she loves to write about lifestyle improvements, self-development and stress-relief methods. You can connect with her @SandramoncadaOh

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Blockchain Entertainment

While the global banking behemoths rush in to the blockchain space, many industry verticals beyond banking are also exploring applications for this technology.  This starts with insurance but also extends to supply chain management and shipping.

However, there is a new vertical that has almost overnight started using the technology, learning how to make money from it. Even if surreptitiously.

The entertainment industry is quickly embracing the blockchain – and on a couple of fronts.

Why is this happening?

Firstly, the film biz has always been high tech and since the early nineties only moving in one direction when it comes to digitalization. Those who thought film stock might actually stick around were quickly disabused of that notion even before Youtube.

However, beyond digitization, which is more an issue of bandwidth and computer-to-computer connections, the film industry and the music industry following close behind it, might have finally found a killer app to meet the demands of the digital age.

Streamed music and video takes a huge amount of hard disk space on digital networks and servers. Digital creative content is also notoriously prone to hacks and leaks.

If companies, or even artists themselves, learn how to market and sell their creative works using blockchain technology, this might provide a cryptographically secure answer to the issue of IP protection in a digital environment, which will be especially valuable for music and film distribution as well as gaming.

If this sounds futuristic, think again. There are already blockchains on the market which are specifically designed for content management and monetization.

What Kinds of Blockchain Work for Creative Content?

Expect many different experiments, but one of the earliest is STEEM. As of last year, it became the third largest digital currency as measured by market cap. The idea is that content creators can open an account and be rewarded for their work by other users. Once rewarded, creators can either get paid or they can reinvest in the system, thus gaining more authority and helping their work get found more easily.

Think Reddit that you have to invest in, but with a theoretical monetary incentive downstream.

While the approach got a lot of early positive and mainstream press, many observers remained sceptical. The reward system overwhelmingly favours those who have the most STEEM in their accounts, which means it is, from the start, an insider’s game. Steem dollars, the currency behind the blockchain, are also supposedly pegged to the worth of US dollars, although this has been challenged by the industry itself. Many have directly challenged the legitimacy of the crypto coin system behind it as a Ponzi scheme and it is easy to see why. Even the industry press remains sceptical.

But that is just one entry into this space, and an early one. And for all the negativity and dismissiveness, there clearly is a role for blockchain and cryptocurrency in the entertainment industry – just not necessarily a STEEM model.

The big boys are also moving into this world – even secretly at this point. The American TV network Showtime was just caught distributing code onto users’ machines that secretly mined a cryptocurrency called monero on subscribers’ computers. As of September the company was forced to remove the code. It is unclear how it got there and nobody is issuing any explanations.

And then there is Disney. The company known for its animations and child friendly entertainment, as well as its affinity for technology, began building an exploratory blockchain called Dragonchain several years ago. From October 2 to November 2 this year, Dragonchain Inc. is also holding an initial ICO to raise money for the company. Approximately 238 million tokens or “dragons” are now available to the public.

Disney is not directly involved. For now.

Netflix Move Over

The internet helped to destroy billions of dollars of revenue for creative industries and artists because it is so easy to post a digital file on a torrent site where it can quickly be downloaded, copied, and shared. There has been very little way – at least in the past – to control what happens after initial distribution.

Online entertainment providers like Netflix have moved into the space this has opened – where users pay a regular subscription fee.

With blockchain, however, the situation becomes very different. Smart contracts, made possible by blockchain based software platforms like Ethereum, could be used to ensure artists receive the royalties that are due to them.

Blockchain, for that reason, will continue to make major inroads into the entertainment space. This is just the beginning.

Marguerite Arnold is the founder of MedPayRx, a blockchain healthcare startup in Frankfurt. She is also an author, journalist and has just obtained her EMBA from the Frankfurt School of Finance and Management.

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