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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What Does Blockchain Mean For HealthCare?

There are many people who cringe when they think about what is going to happen to healthcare under a Trump administration. Healthcare is a subject which has wormed its way into everyday conversation since Ronald Reagan was in office. Back then “entitlements”, specifically social security, were a supposed “third rail” that could not be touched, whittled down or even frozen.

Fast forward to the present.

Regardless of what you think about immigrants, poor people, old people, sick people or children, there is one fact that is inescapable. The basic notion of the “welfare state” is being re-examined. It is not just the United States where this is a hotly contested issue.

The drivers? Exploding costs and aging demographics along with creaky infrastructure and outdated service models.

The scandal facing the NHS in mid May over a massive hack made possible by outdated software is just one example of how fragile established western healthcare systems currently are.

That the system needs to be fixed is not controversial. How to fix it is another issue.

In the United States, there is huge pressure on Republicans to overhaul Obamacare. And it is fair to say that there are no easy fixes to a system in the United States that is unbelievably complex, expensive, and which has gaping holes in it. Out of desperation, one proposal to cut costs in the United States is to incorporate blockchain technology. In Europe, where the social state as a concept has not died, blockchain has already begun to be examined as a cost-saver in both the public and private insurance industry.

Blockchain could help to reduce healthcare costs. One of the biggest drivers of healthcare costs in the United States and other places is the administrative time, cost and paperwork necessary to run a regulated industry. A key benefit of using blockchain will be lower costs of healthcare administration due to economies of scale that will provide much needed relief to state and national budgets. This means that the forecast explosion of costs might be better contained.

Rising healthcare costs are further complicated by privacy laws that aim to protect health related information. In the United States, this falls under HIPAA. Otherwise known as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, this Clinton-era legislation has very strict rules about how health records can be shared. Blockchain in this environment provides a secure way for databases to talk to each other, and offers a solution to the privacy conundrum laid out for IT professionals in this space since 1996.

For this reason, introducing blockchain represents one of the first true opportunities to “fix” a horribly broken system – in the U.S. and elsewhere.

In Europe, where the concept of inclusive healthcare is akin to a sovereign right, this conversation has already started.

Implementing blockchain will not simply be a matter of sending “bitcoins” to doctors for payment. It will be about the widespread use of “smart contracts”. The earliest use cases across the industry are mostly related to health record management and access, as well as insurance claims.

Blockchain may be a secure technology, but creating a fully digitised healthcare system raises serious privacy concerns. If people are enrolled in systems where they can be tracked for life, what happens to that information and who has the right to access it? How will such interactions be designed to protect the individual in a world where nothing, suddenly, is truly private. How can people with pre-existing medical conditions be sure that their information won’t fall into the hands of insurance companies who will use the information to charge higher insurance premiums or to deny coverage?

These new healthcare systems will need to be designed with privacy issues kept firmly in mind. An old and crumbling system is about to be replaced with a technology whose impact is as yet largely unfelt. And for the most part, it will be Generation X and Y who will be tasked with building these systems. The privacy rights of young people and many voiceless individuals on the fringes of the system will be affected. This could serve as a clarion call to those who have long been left out of the healthcare debate, but more likely it underlines the importance of safeguarding the privacy rights of groups who are presently unaware that their fundamental rights are hanging in the balance.

In sum, blockchain will absolutely play a defining role in healthcare reform. How and where it will be applied is still unclear. However, it is likely to play a central role in redesigning healthcare systems for the 21st century in America and beyond.

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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