MIT Sloan Management Review,MIT Media Lab,Big data

Another Side Of Big Data: Big Data For Social Good

November 9, 2016

(Credit: Shutterstock) Over the course of the past five years I have written extensively on the topic of big data for distinguished publications, including Forbes, The Wall Street Journal, MIT Sloan Management Review, and Harvard Business Review. My intentions in writing on the topic of big data have been to help shed some light and demystify this new phenomenon, and educate executives on the potential benefits and opportunities. Big data also represents change and new approaches, and many executives have sought to understand and appreciate how they can begin to derive value from the advanced application of data and analytics. There have been many well-articulated benefits to data-driven decision making, including greater accuracy, precision, efficiency, and responsibility in the use of data. Big data has helped fuel rapid innovation through faster iterative learning – fail fast, learn faster, execute smarter. While I have been a proponent of the potential benefits of big data, I have also understood that big data can be a double-edged sword, bringing insight, while also posing risks to privacy or abuse when data falls into nefarious hands. Recently, there have been expressions of fresh concern regarding the risk of big data abuses, from data breaches to WikiLeaks and instances of data hacking. This has given rise to growing attention to the application and implications of big data, not just within the context of the business world, but within social contexts as well. In response to growing interest in the broader uses and implications of big data in a wide range of contexts, I was recently asked to organize and moderate a leadership panel on the topic of “Big Data for Social Good” for the Big Data Innovation Symposium held in Boston, MA this month. My familiarity with data in the context of societal issues had been limited to a few interactions with the leadership of MIT Media Lab, and a 2015 Wall Street Journal column that I wrote entitled Tracing Some of Big Data’s Big Paradoxes, which discussed some of the thornier issues around big data risks as articulated by Neil M. Richards, Professor of Law at Washington University in St. Louis. Concerns about the use of big data has spawned a cottage industry of critics in recent years, among the most notable and most vocal being Cathy O’Neil, former Director of the Lede Program in Data Practices at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and a PhD mathematician from Harvard University. In her new book, Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy, O’Neil writes...

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