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Dax Hamman


How a Data-Driven Society Can Benefit Us

Posted: 05/06/2013 3:45 pm

There was the gold rush and the oil boom. Now, there's the data dash. With the digital age still in its infancy, we're just beginning to mine and refine the mountains of data accumulated from our mobile devices and Internet activity. And while all of this data gathering sometimes leads to anxiety -- often misplace anxiety -- it's important to remember that it allows us to learn an incredible amount about ourselves and society-at-large. Let's examine some of the possibilities of how Big Data may change society for the better:

1) Individual-Based Governing

Last year, Alexander Pentland of the MIT Media Lab put forth a fascinating presentation on Edge.org: "Reinventing Society in the Wake of Big Data." In his presentation, Pentland proposes that the most crucial data we're unearthing is behavioural data -- and that includes everything from location data from mobile devices to transactional data from credit cards and mobile wallets.

This kind of data is already fawned over by marketers in order to target consumers with the right ads and offers, but it can also be applied to how we govern our societies. Pentland told the New York Times that much of the way we think about governing is grounded in Adam Smith and Karl Marx and their conception of markets and classes. "But those are aggregates," Pentland told the Times. "They're averages."

Behavioural data, conversely, provides governments for the first time with the ability to track social phenomena at the individual level. That means that government incentive and benefit programs could potentially be customized on an individual level through powerful algorithms, eliminating the inevitable waste that comes from working with averages. Just imagine, to take one example, how much more efficient Social Security could be if we adjusted payments based on local fluctuations in cost of living.

2) Digital Immortality

In bygone years, people lived on through a few physical remnants: photographs, some old shirts, a shoebox full of old letters. But now, much of our lives are being tracked and recorded in data sets.

When you consider how we're connected most of the time -- and how smartphones and Google Glass will allow us to record and share more and more of our life experience -- we are likely headed towards a future where 90 per cent of someone's life experience is recorded in some sort of data. Humans will be able to examine not only the lives of the billions of people living on this planet, but also billions of people who came before us. Even when we're gone, our lives will stay alive in data, available for anyone who wishes to examine it.

Google is already anticipating this development. Last week, they became the first company to provide users with a tool to decide what happens to their data when they die.

3) Predicting the Future

On his blog, Numerate Choir, Silicon Valley data geek Mike Greenfield has a fascinating post on how Paypal used their robust armory of data to create statistical models that predicted the future -- in this case, that future was fraudulent transactions. Those models allowed Paypal to "identify (and ultimately stop) half of the fraud in the system while blocking or examining well under 1 per cent of the transactions."

Best of all, this allowed Paypal to delegate its manpower in the most efficient way possible. If a transaction had a 0.000001 per cent chance of fraud, Paypal need not worry about it. But if a transaction had a 2 per cent chance of fraud, Paypal could have someone on the case monitoring it.

The increased use of data in this way will allow governments, businesses, and humane organizations to delegate their resources with much greater efficiency in the future, but it can predict other things as well. We're already seeing how sites like Football Outsiders use complex combinations of data and algorithms to correctly predict the results of sporting events, and how Nate Silver famously used polling data to correctly predict which candidate would win every state in the last presidential election.

At Circle of Moms, Greenfield has expanded his predictive modeling to create the most appealing possible content for Circle of Mom's audience on any given week. Meanwhile, companies like Netflix and Amazon are also using data modeling to present users with the most appealing content possible.

These practices are getting better and better each year, and we're moving towards a future where brands and governments know what we want and need before we even know it ourselves. That's the revolutionary power of Big Data, and it's going to make the world a better place.

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  • Google Glasses: A New Way To Hurt Yourself

    It didn't take very long for Tom Scott to upload <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/04/05/google-glasses-parody-project-glass_n_1406274.html" target="_hplink">this hilarious spoof</a> of Google's "Project Glass" video -- he literally posted his video on the same day Google posted theirs. In a short 20 seconds, he shows all that could go wrong with a futuristic tech device like this one.

  • Windows Project Glass: One Day Too...

    What if Google's glasses <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/04/09/project-glass-parody-smashes-windows_n_1412340.html" target="_hplink">ran Windows</a>? It's likely the problems (and pop-ups) would be endless, as shown in this parody <a href="http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=ZwModZmOzDs" target="_hplink">by Vlakkeland</a>.

  • Google Glasses Warfare [Project Glass: One Day Parody]

    <a href="http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=rM4KF0SAm0I" target="_hplink">Binx Films</a> goes gamer on Google's "Project Glass" video, showing how the device would work in the middle of a Call of Duty-like mission.

  • Project Ass: Google Goggles (The Parody)

    The wearer of Google's glasses in this <a href="http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=-KmFSmkDyr8" target="_hplink">Grad Life production</a> definitely makes the video hilarious with how he puts them to use.

  • Project Dangerous Glasses

    With this video, <a href="http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=Ma8NbpCvSwo" target="_hplink">Happy Toaster</a> shows how not-so-great Google's high-tech glasses might be, especially playing up how it may point out the way-too-obvious and even accidentally cause a death.

  • Google Project Glass - Cheating Wife Parody

    <a href="http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=5vrxfiXU5lo" target="_hplink">LessFilms' funny video</a> points out yet another pitfall (or perhaps plus?) of having Google glasses: You can find out if your loved one is cheating whether you like it or not.

  • ADmented Reality - Google Glasses Remixed With Google Ads

    <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/04/05/is-this-what-google-glasses-video_n_1406993.html" target="_hplink">Jonathan McIntosh</a> tells it to the world straight <a href="http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=_mRF0rBXIeg" target="_hplink">with his Google glass spoof</a>. In the same way that Google pages are riddled with ads, he suggests that Google's glasses might be filled with ads, too -- but they'll be a lot more distracting.

  • Google Glasses: FIRST HANDS ON!

    Unfortunately, <a href="http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=RC8p8olw2oU" target="_hplink">Studio Hoofnail's short parody</a> of Google's video ends quite tragically -- but not before poking fun at its potential shortcomings.

  • Google's Project Glass

    Even <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/04/06/jimmy-kimmel-google-project-glass-video_n_1407927.html" target="_hplink">Jimmy Kimmel had his fun</a> with Google's "Project Glass" video. The clip he shows may <em>look</em> like the original, but keep on watching to discover the funny bit he added on.


    Google unveils a preview of its futuristic Web-based digital glasses that puts the company's Web services, literally, in your face.


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