BlueDot, a Canadian company that is fighting diseases with data, analyzes billions of global flight itineraries, real-time climatic conditions and population characteristics to predict the spread of infectious diseases like the Zika virus - helping governments prepare for and better respond to outbreaks.
This is the promise of big data -- a brighter future where insights drawn from massive amounts of aggregated data fuel smarter decisions about every aspect of our society. With access to more and more personal data however, comes the critical issue of how to build and maintain the public's trust.
The big potential of big data
Just how big is the potential of big data? The amount of data we are generating is growing at an exponential rate. It's estimated that by 2020, there will be more than 6.1 billion smartphone users globally along with more than 50 billion smart connected devices generating, analyzing and sharing information. By that time, about 1.7 megabytes of new data will be created every second for every human on the planet and our digital universe will grow to a total of around 44 trillion gigabytes of data. From all levels of government to large and small businesses, nearly every organization we interact with will collect and analyze data about us to some extent.
Within this almost unimaginable amount of data lies the promise of better healthcare, safer and more sustainable cities, more effective educational systems, and smarter and more-informed business decisions. By analyzing patterns and trends, data scientists can also help predict natural disasters before they occur and even tackle societal issues like poverty, homelessness and human trafficking.
As promising as the future of this big data is, it does not come without real privacy concerns that must be addressed.
Earning trust is critical
As governments and businesses look to leverage this data, earning and maintaining their constituents' and customers' trust is an essential first step. With Edward Snowden's revelations of government surveillance, numerous stories of privacy invasive technologies and countless large-scale data breaches, the public's trust has been broken and, for some, big data has become synonymous with Big Brother. It's now incumbent upon governments and enterprises to overcome the negativity and rebuild that trust.
The full value of big data will only be realized when organizations approach it in a manner that places personal privacy at the forefront. So, if we want to unlock the positive potential of big data, we need to approach it in a way that simultaneously fosters innovations that will help our society and mitigates risks associated with using data in new and different ways.
What does getting it right look like?
- Before we ask "can we?" ask "should we?" Organizations with access to big data must make ethical decisions around what is and isn't an appropriate use of big data. We need to keep the focus on the individual and the individual's expectations, even as we look at solutions for the betterment of society.
- Build a robust data governance model. Before the first bit of data is analyzed, organizations must have a data governance model in place that factors in all of the ethical implications, along with considerations like security and accountability. Privacy-protective best practices, like de-identification and aggregation, must be put in place to ensure insight is derived from aggregate trends and patterns, rather than personal information.
- Embed privacy, by design. How we might use data tomorrow should be incorporated into the plans and policies we put in place today, so that future innovations can be built on a foundation deserving of public trust. Organizations must ensure that respect, ethics and security are injected into every decision about data. In other words, privacy must be integrated right into the design of almost everything we do.
- Communicate openly and be completely transparent. Public trust can only be maintained when organizations are genuinely open and honest about what and how they are managing big data. And we must continuously update our policies and practices as technology evolves and ever more data becomes available.
The massive potential of big data is undeniable. Organizations that do nothing with their data out of fear or aversion to risk will miss great opportunities to make a positive difference for their customers and society as a whole. Not using data to save lives or transform communities for the better is an opportunity that Canada cannot afford to miss.
While we have some work to do to build public confidence, the good news is that if we do it the right way now -- by earning and maintaining trust every step of the way -- we will have nearly limitless opportunities to harness the power of data to create a better, safer, healthier and more prosperous Canada.
Follow HuffPost Canada Blogs on Facebook