Big Data analysis from the White House: understanding the debate

Danah boyd, founder of the critical Big Data think/do tank Data and Society, writes about the work she did with the White House on Big Data: Seizing Opportunities, Preserving Values [PDF]. Boyd and her team convened a conference called The Social, Cultural & Ethical Dimensions of "Big Data" (read the proceedings here), and fed the conclusions from that event back to the White House for its report.

In boyd's view, the White House team did good work in teasing out the hard questions about public benefit and personal costs of Big Data initiatives, and made solid recommendations for future privacy-oriented protections. Boyd points to this Alistair Croll quote as getting at the heart of one of Big Data's least-understood problems:

Perhaps the biggest threat that a data-driven world presents is an ethical one. Our social safety net is woven on uncertainty. We have welfare, insurance, and other institutions precisely because we can’t tell what’s going to happen — so we amortize that risk across shared resources. The better we are at predicting the future, the less we’ll be willing to share our fates with others.

Navigating the messiness of “big data” requires going beyond common frames of public vs. private, collection vs. usage. Much to my frustration, the conversation around the “big data” phenomenon tends to get quickly polarized – it’s good or it’s bad, plain and simple. But it’s never that simple. The same tools that streamline certain practices and benefit certain individuals can have serious repercussions for other people and for our society as a whole. As the quote above hints at, what’s at stake is the very essence of our societal fabric. Building a healthy society in a data-centric world requires keeping one eye on the opportunities and one eye on the potential risks. While it’s not perfect, the report from the White House did a darn good job of striking this balance.

Not only did the White House team tease out many core issues for both public and private sector, but they helped scaffold a framework for policy makers. The recommendations they offer aren’t silver bullets, but they are reasonable first steps. Many will inevitably argue that they don’t go far enough (or, in some cases, go too far) – and I can definitely get nitpicky here – but that’s par for the course. This doesn’t damper my appreciation. I’m still uber grateful to see the Administration take the time to tease out the complexity of the issues and offer a path forward that is not simply polarizing.

New White House Report on Big Data