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Big data & reality mining; the bright side

Part one of two(?) on data and society. 1. The Pros

China trials a social scoring system which is set to launch in 2020. This new scoring system has been covered in the western media as what George Orwell describe in his book 1984 as Big Brother. Now we all know that big data and the collection thereof is evil, and I as an individual should have the only access right to my personal information. However, on the academic side, there are not a lot of peer-reviewed articles available yet on the precise social and political implications of this subject. Whether that is because of the novelty of the issue or that the information is behind locked doors, is uncertain. China's system is often compared to the ID number system in India called Aadhaar, while different from the outset, they both dabbling in new data realms. Most news articles that are written about these systems dive into the punishments and rewards, because, the truth is, that is what is most interesting to read about. How will it affect a person's life? And is it as scary as it sounds?

These are questions that naturally arise, but it casts the tool directly into a bad light. Big data and AI will undoubtedly play a large part in our future society, and through these technologies, private companies will enhance the already existing customer rating systems. It is only logical that governments will mimic the private sector in using the same tools in the name of security and social well being. Now I am not a big advocate of intrusive surveillance systems but it is an inevitable outcome of the information age. The whole 'scoring & credit' system shows no merit, but rather what peeked my interest is the behaviour tracking. I think it is not a bad idea for governments to increase its own spending into an anonymous social tracking mechanism.  Collecting data over a very wide spectrum is a technological challenge, and I rather want to see our government in charge of it than a tech giant. An added benefit to a state approach is that it can stimulate economic innovation and growth in the tech sector, which the EU member states especially could use.

The book called Social Physics: How Good Ideas Spread by Alex Pentland touches upon some of the amazing possibilities that data can provide. The main topic described in the book covers idea flow, and the conclusions made in that area are very underwhelming, rather the real bit of interest is the chapter covering big data. Mr Pentland describes the gathering of personal data and tracking of social behaviour as Reality Mining. The data scientist  goes into benefits that could change society for the better if everyone would wear a simple a tracking device (or install it in your portable computer as an app) and allow themselves to be reality mined.

1. Health. Alex was able to prove that they could successfully reality mine which participants in the tracking studies where ill with a flu because of behavioural changes. Through this, his team and him were able to create a map on high risk contagious areas, which should be avoided. While as you, as a sensible person, could of course expect that these would simply be high traffic areas, it did include some interesting sectors that you probably would have missed depending on factors such as air quality and ventilation. Do you have your wedding coming up, or an important interview? Your phone will tell you where not to go so you do not get sick. Outbreaks and pandemics can also be  easier prevented by immediately seeing the areas where response is required and which not.

2. Transport. While probably obvious, the impact social tracking could have on transport, and especially public transport are enormous. If the government/city/region knows exactly how many people are where, it will be easier to implement more efficient public transport. No more full, or even worse, empty buses. Pentland goes quite into depth of how growth is related to exploration. Physical mobility has also direct ties to socio-economic status, if movement of citizens can be tracked then it will become apparent what areas need more investment in regards to transport incentives. Other government services also fall into this category, any place of public spending can actively be improved and has direct feedback on its efficiency. In transport when you have an emergency situation like when your car spins on ice and hits a tree, through big data, your car with notify the appropriate services for your mishap and can even measure the intensity of the accident.

3. Security. Terrorism is seen, in the recent eurobarometer, as the second most important issue that the EU should be dealing with. While the percentage being extremely low that you are a victim of an attack it still shows that mankind cares. Now of course you can say this is skewed by portrayal of these events in the media and put on a pedestal by far-right parties, it still remains that a large amount of people would prefer some extra measures against terrorism. Externally there is not much we can do with social tracking, but internally social tracking can become detrimental in the prevention of terrorism. Using AI to determine suspects is much more efficient if you just look at processing capabilities in comparison to our monkey brains. While of course I am not rooting for some Blackmirror-esque society, at the moment there is no other viable solution for the fear of terrorism that is currently predominant. An interesting aspect of using AI for security is the utilitarianism that is in its nature. However, this topic deserves a post on its self because it does not really match this post´s theme.

Before I go into some sort of conclusion I want to explain the usage of Big data in this post. The term itself is vague and there is not one specific definition that sticks, it all depends on the context. The way I prefer to describe it is a large (big) volume of data that can be analysed, processed, and applied with as end results new insights that cannot be found through traditional techniques. An article: "Why Data is Never Raw" in the New Atlantic goes more in the nuances of data which is an interesting read.

The possibilities of data we are aware of only touch the surface of what we will see in the future. However, data scientists, like Pentland, skimmed over some important political and ethical questions that remain to be answered which are to be discussed in a subsequent blog post. It is in these questions my real opinion comes to light. this blog was first to proof that there are indeed ground breaking advancements to be gain from data tracking/mining, but for me it is more of a catalyst than our next step to a brighter future.