Data Collection: The Good, the Bad, and the Value
The collection of private data has been a hot topic in the news in recent years.
From Google’s algorithms seeming to predict what you’re going to search for even before you begin typing to Facebook’s unwitting sale of private user data to Cambridge Analytica, more people than ever before are learning about the data that’s collected every day and how it’s used.
Whether it’s a government collecting traffic data around the city, a medical research firm gathering information on pediatric patients, or a for-profit company collecting consumer behavior patterns, data collection is here to stay, with all its benefits and drawbacks.
Collecting data from thousands, even millions, of people does have its benefits. Those benefits include:
If you’re able to collect a wide variety of data, such as health information on patients, it leads to better, faster innovations.
Health technology has created a big market for data collection, such as wearable devices that provide feedback to their users and their doctors. From diabetes patients who wear monitors at all times to help better dial in their insulin needs to smart asthma inhalers, the applications of data collection in medicine are nearly endless.
By collecting as much information as possible, developers can create more personalized, powerful technology that helps larger groups of people.
The future of data collection could bring cures for everything from cancer to the common cold, all by harnessing the power of little bits of information collected from millions of people.
In the past, developing a new technology, method, or process required a significant investment of time and money.
Individuals would have to be hired to study or interview subjects, compare data on paper, and collect significant information. All the collected information then would have to be analyzed and interpreted, mostly by humans.
Because of the great expense that innovative projects required using old methods, decision-making and real change moved at a glacier’s pace.
Thanks to digital data collection, gathering and analyzing information is much faster and less expensive than ever before. Researchers, city leaders, entrepreneurs, and other stakeholders can think of a problem they want to solve, collect the data they want through existing channels, and create solutions that benefit large groups of people.
This cost and time savings has allowed newer, better methods and products to come to market more rapidly, accelerating change and innovation.
Reducing consumption of natural resources and energy used to be full of guesswork. Does turning down the thermostat a few degrees at night really make that big of an impact? What about the solar power generated by one solar panel?
With digital data collection, however, we have more accurate information than ever before on just how big an impact even small changes can make.
By looking at data collected from individual homes all the way up through entire countries, scientists can better understand how much carbon, for example, is saved by switching over to hydroelectric power from coal-driven power.
Having this data makes people more likely to adopt resource-saving behaviors, leading to better stewardship of natural resources and a better overall environment.
Faster Response Times
Modern life moves fast, which means that people expect to be notified of changes or disruptions to their routines quickly.
Rather than waiting for older methods of modeling in weather patterns or traffic, for example, modern data collection allows for real-time data collection and modeling.
If there’s an accident at a busy intersection during rush hour, for example, traffic can quickly be re-routed to avoid jams and frustration for commuters. The information collected from traffic lights, sensors, and even individual mobile phones can help create an accurate map that avoids the accident and keeps traffic flowing smoothly.
The same goes for when severe weather or another emergency occurs.
Collected data can more accurately predict the path of a storm, warning people in its path immediately so they have more time to get to safety. And, should disaster strike, collected data can help quickly mobilize emergency response teams to get people the help they need faster.
With widespread data collection from a variety of sources comes a wealth of information that could be valuable to businesses and nonprofits.
Less expensive, more complete data collection methods have led some groups to offer free or low-cost access to their data stores. This has opened up research and development by startups and agencies that otherwise wouldn’t have the budget to collect the data on their own.
This has opened up innovation for humanitarian purposes, such as a project using call data to understand refugee integration in Turkey by the United Nations Global Pulse. This allows groups to more effectively and efficiently use their budgets and resources, leading to better outcomes and programs for the targeted populations.
On the other side of the coin, and perhaps more widely publicized, are the negative impacts of data collection, including:
When data is collected by agencies and businesses, the individual people supplying the data no longer have control over their personal information.
Big tech companies such as Facebook and Google are notorious for collecting vast stores of personal data on their users, even selling that data in some cases. Everything from your birthdate to your favorite ice cream flavor is up for grabs if you put that information out there.
The lack of privacy with the collection of data has been widely criticized, leading some to call for the breakup of the big names and stricter regulations on what data can and cannot be collected.
Following the 2016 United States Presidential election, the news came out that Cambridge Analytica had obtained the data of millions of Facebook users which was used in campaign advertising.
This data breach brought new light to the public scrutiny over the collection and use of personal data by corporations. If one company gained access to that much data under false pretenses, couldn’t other corporations?
Storing tons of data, especially extremely personal information such as bank account information and health records, requires strict security.
Unfortunately, hackers are always hard at work looking for ways to get around even the tightest digital controls to gain access to your data. High-profile data breaches at Marriott, Target, and other organizations have led to calls for increased security.
While no single method of securing digital data ever will be foolproof, data security experts are always developing new ways to secure and protect the personal data governments, companies, and other institutions collect.
Too Much Data
Like ice cream, too much of a good thing can easily become a bad thing.
Does your doctor need to know that you eat more steak than they put into your diet plan, for example? Or does your credit card company need to track every item you spend money on?
Collecting information about everyone who uses an app or visits a particular location has its bonuses, but the sheer amount of data collected easily can become overwhelming and intrusive.
While having large-scale access to certain data sets can make things less expensive for some smaller firms, turning data into a commodity also can make it incredibly expensive.
If a company collects important health data on cancer patients, for example, they easily could charge researchers a premium for access to that data. This could make gaining access to important information that may lead to life-saving developments out of reach of some firms.
In addition, interpreting and analyzing data sets requires skilled, knowledgeable data scientists and other professionals, or sophisticated software. These expenses mean that lower-budget groups may be able to access important data, but cannot actually do anything with it.
What’s the Future of Data Collection?
As technology advances and people become more comfortable giving companies access to their deepest, darkest secrets, data collection and analysis is likely to expand.
It’s possible that the future may bring with it a situation where companies already know what you’re going to buy before you even begin looking for it thanks to predictive analytics and all the data that’s already been collected on you.
However, the expansion of data collection isn’t likely to go completely unchecked.
We’re probably going to see more and more governments jumping into the call for regulation of what data can be collected by private companies and what that data can be used for, and current tech giants may fall as a result.
What is a sure thing is that data collection as a concept for both public and private entities isn’t going away anytime soon.
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