• Opinion
  • October 11, 2018
  • 6 minutes
  • 1

Big data should work for the many, not the few — but first we need access

Opinion: Tech giants’ refusal to share data with policymakers is damaging service design

big data

This opinion piece was written by Alberto Alemanno, Jean Monnet Professor of EU Law and HEC Paris founder of The Good Lobby, a social profit committed to equalising the policy process. He is also the author of Lobbying for Change: Find Your Voice to Create a Better Society.


When disaster strikes — be it a terrorist attack, the outbreak of a pandemic or a natural disaster — today’s emergency response services have a tool that their historical predecessors could only have dreamed of: big data.

Today, having data means being able to save lives. By collecting, processing and using data, we are able to know exactly where the most vulnerable people are, where the epicentre of the disaster is, or how a pandemic, such as Zika, is spreading.

Most of this information can typically be inferred from where people check their phones following a disaster or which words they use while communicating about it on social media. The use of private data in humanitarian emergencies should highlight its immense value — but its day-to-day uses could be even greater.

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Urban planning and health might not inflame the passions of ordinary people like disaster can, but the use of commercial data in public services can enrich the lives of the many.

Today, having data means being able to save lives

Using data to identify common predictors for liver failure, for example, could save countless lives. By assessing certain trigger messages associated with teen suicide, public authorities could better assess what preventive approach might — or might not — work. And by monitoring people’s use of public and private transports through geo-tagging, we could generate super-rich data capable of determining how a city operates as well as where and how traffic could be improved.

Yet unfortunately it is not public authorities who hold this real-time data, but private entities: mobile network operators, tech firms such as Google, and, in particular, social media platforms, such as Facebook and Twitter all hold the keys to a vast reservoir of information.

The growing quantity of data harvested by companies through search engines, social networking sites, photo-sharing sites, messengers and apps are the result of the interaction of commercial interests, interface designs, algorithmic processes and users’ indication of preferences, actions or attitudes.

Thanks to their many features — including geo-localization and eye-tracking — and our uncritical generosity in giving away so much personal information, these companies know more about us than our partners and closest friends.

By supplementing scant public statistics and informing interventions, big data functions as a crucial “sense-making resource in the digital era”. In particular, by disclosing these data and mashing them up with various data sets, tech companies could enable public authorities to improve situational awareness and response and prioritise interventions that really work. That could save money and lives.

While keeping big data under lock and key represents an opportunity for the few tomorrow, it is already a life-or-death matter for the many, today

Companies’ data can tell us not only whether a given policy intervention works or doesn’t work but also how it could be fixed. Policymakers could learn if citizens consume less of an unhealthy product as a result of the implementation of a given policy, be it a soda tax, a health warning or a sale restriction of that product. In other words, access to social media datasets can improve not only the design of new public policies, but also their real-world impact.

While the welfare-enhancing properties of data sharing make such a practice a moral necessity, we need technical and legal frameworks capable of translating such a growing moral imperative into workable and legally sound solutions. In the absence of a plausible solution, preventable societal problems will increase exponentially — until firms like Facebook, Google and Apple start coughing up more data-based evidence.

While keeping big data under lock and key represents an opportunity for the few tomorrow, it is already a life-or-death matter for the many, today. This should sound as a call-to-action to everyone interested in how the promises of big data could deliver for society as a whole. — Alberto Alemanno

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