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The ethics of big data is an industry concern: Dr Barry Devlin

The ethics of big data is an industry concern: Dr Barry Devlin

One the pioneers of Big Data research says: The ‘fast and furious’ collection of data spawns privacy and economic issues. "We cannot just put our heads in the sand like the scientists who tamed atomic energy but said something like, ‘We just invented the bomb but we did not use it'."

“The business needs were very simple in a way,” says Dr Barry Devlin, when he started working in the data and information business in the mid-1980s. “How do we get a view of what is going on in my business? How do we get a consistent view of the market, the results that I have in various different parts of the business?

“…If we can only understand past performance and within our business or around our business and customers, we will be able to do better business.”

This is still a good message for organisations deploying business intelligence, says Devlin, now a business intelligence and big data industry analyst and founder of 9sight Consulting.

He had in fact published the first data warehouse architecture in 1988, when most IT departments were building standalone reporting systems.

“What has happened in the last few years is essentially that the amount of data and information we are able to collect has expanded dramatically.”

There is also a massive change on how the data is being used, he adds.

The Internet of Things is providing the impetus for change, with data coming from connected devices such as Apple Watches and Fitbits. There are also monitors in cars to determine whether one is driving too hard or too fast, or cutting corners.

As one of my colleagues would say, 'big data should not always be about trying to sell more shoes'.

Dr Barry Devlin, 9sight Consulting

“All of this information is useful for business,” he says. “It certainly gives us a way to reinvent the insurance, health and the automobile industries.”

Read more: Lesly Goh: How I got into IoT

“The fact that you walk into a store with a registered smartphone that allows you to get specific offers” is one of the ways the retail sector is being impacted.

He says a shoe store in Guatemala takes a step further. It tracks those who signed up for its app when they turn up in a rival store in the same shopping centre.

“It will give you 99 per cent discount if you come to their store but you have to get there very quickly as the discount drops by one per cent per second.

“You have these young guys dashing around the shopping centre trying to get from A to B. It is a crazy idea, and it will work for a while.”

But as he points out, it is the information around where you are that is driving all of this business.

“From a business point of view, this is fascinating because it changes the way you run the business.

“The technology gives you the ability to do these things. It becomes so powerful, providing you with the data and information but also giving you the possibility to analyse it in real-time or near real-time.

This, he says, is the “strength of big data”.

“If you have got the right technology and if you have got the right architecture in place, you can drive the automation and analysis of big data and data from the Internet of Things.”

Related: 'Big data is too important to leave to data scientists': Michael Whitehead of WhereScape

Business unIntelligence

So how does this impact CIOs and their teams?

“CIOs need to understand they have to figure out with the business people how the technology can support the business and the business people have to understand what technology can offer the business,” he states.

It is a theme he tackles in his book Business unIntelligence. He uses the term biz-tech ecosystem, “a symbiosis between IT and business people around technology”, to describe how business and technology teams are working together.

This ecosystem is important as every business opportunity these days is being driven by advances in technology, he says. “Technology is the foundation of all business competition, and its survival.”

The idea of getting consent beforehand is almost impossible…so how do we use data ethically, and within the constraints of protecting privacy?

Dr Barry Devlin, 9sight Consulting

This collaboration is driving new analytics and data management approaches. “We are all basically at this stage in a very interesting social experiment with information and data.

“One of the things the CIOs and we [in the industry] should be thinking about are the ethical issues that need to be considered.

“For example, how do we protect people’s privacy, how do we actually get people’s agreement to use data in certain ways?”

He says the old approach of being able to go out and ask for permission to use data for a certain purpose is almost broken because we are now collecting data so fast and furiously.

"The idea of getting consent beforehand is almost impossible,” he states. “So how do we use data ethically, and within the constraints of protecting privacy?”

There are also economic issues to consider. “If you think about the technology, whether it is automation of driving, or automation of decision making, all of that has an economic implication in terms of jobs.

“There are consumers out there to buy our goods, but if they do not have jobs to make money to buy the goods, how do you deal with that?”

These are deep societal, ethical and economic issues which he says were not even considered when he started working on data warehousing 30 years ago.

“They were totally off the radar then. It did not matter because we were not affecting things at that level.

"But today, we are affecting things at a society level with technology.

“That is something CIOs really must take on board as they go forward. They cannot just put their heads in the sand like the scientists who tamed atomic energy but said something like, ‘We just invented the bomb but we did not use it'.”

There are so many real issues the world can use it [big data] to solve, whether it is global warming, climate change, wealth distribution or terrorism.

“As one of my colleagues would say, 'It should not always be about trying to sell more shoes'.”

Related: Top five myths CIOs need to dispel about Big Data: Gartner

Editor’s note: This is part one of an exclusive interview with Dr Barry Devlin. In part two of the interview, he shares insights on how CIOs are tackling disruption brought by advances in technology.

Send news tips and comments to divina_paredes@idg.co.nz

Follow Divina Paredes on Twitter: @divinap

Follow CIO New Zealand on Twitter:@cio_nz

Read more: ‘As customers transition to smartphones, so should you’

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