Big Data Can Save Your Life

By M. Anthony Mills
June 5, 2014
General Foundation

The press on big data and related services and technologies has grown gloomy of late. Challenges, difficulties, anxieties, and fears about privacy in particular dominate the public debate about whether and how to allow data-driven technologies to enter the mainstream. As legitimate as these concerns are, they are not—should not be—the end of the story.

Companies—from big house-hold names such as Boeing, Raytheon, and the Weather Channel to smaller, lesser-known companies such as LiveSafe—are leveraging the power of big data and data analytics to tackle problems ranging from emergency preparedness, disaster warning and response, and personal safety.

The growing importance of big data, analytics, and social media to help predict, prevent, react, and regroup in light of disasters, such has the Boston Marathon Bombings and Hurricane Sandy, is well known. So too is the use of smart technology to feed real time data, whether concerning local weather patterns, supply chain logistics, industrial maintenance, or crime hot zones.

In the majority of school shootings—to take just one harrowing example—someone has relevant knowledge of the event beforehand. How can individual awareness, perception, or knowledge be leveraged to prevent or at least to help respond more quickly to such catastrophes?

One new app, LiveSafe, harnesses the power of mobile smart devices and connectivity to bolster personal safety into the individual’s pocket. The LiveSafe app is downloadable on any smart device and enables users to send out critical information and notices to authorities directly, making reporting, easy, fast—and anonymous.

The moment a notice is sent a dispatch team, with the police or local security force, will register an alarm and respond to the user in real time. Victims of hit and run accidents, for example, can photograph assailants’ license plate numbers, sending them directly to the police, rather than trying to write down or remember plate numbers and making phone calls after the fact.

In an age when texting and emailing are the dominate mode of social information exchange, the ability to notify authorities anonymously, discreetly, and without making a phone call, comes as a relief. Safety may finally be joining convenience as a primary byproduct of new smart technologies and social media.

To date, surveillance cameras remain the best sources of information for crimes and related personal safety incidents. But surveillance cameras invite many obvious privacy concerns; moreover, they are records of events that are useful primarily after the fact. Current data technologies, of which LiveSafe is just one example, are changing that by enabling real-time data to be collected and recorded and without ubiquitous state surveillance.

To be sure, such services invite their own privacy worries—from those redolent of Philip K. Dick’s Minority Report to more mundane, if not unimportant, worries about misidentification, photo-privacy, and abuse. The leaks regarding the NSA’s spying techniques have made such issues urgent.

But as legitimate as they are, many of these concerns predate, and are thus not necessarily the result of, current social media and big data technologies. The telephone already enabled average users to report—if in a more awkward fashion—crimes faster and more easily than they could have been prior to telephony. And cameras themselves, for surveillance pertaining to security and traffic, elicited and still elicit privacy concerns from the citizenry. 

As private citizens, we pay a price for all security measures. In the domain of personal safety at any rate, smart technologies could help make that price more palatable.