Putting Big Data to Good Use

March 20, 2014

Catherine Rampell's bitingly witty new WaPo column argues that public and private sectors should both "put data to good use." I agree with that point, but disagree when she says that this isn’t happening. The truth is that the private sector already uses data for good. And while Rampell doesn't see the value of odd ads crafted by richly rewarded Valley types, I see them as the long tail of our data-driven economy. 

I see 5 key values of data:

    • Power to transform - disruption of the status quo
    • Access to opportunity - opens up new fields
    • Potential for people - alters the way we live
    • Impact on the economy - creates value across all sectors
    • Serendipity of use - new uses for old data


We should discover more of this value, not less. Rampell says, "If the ads I’m seeing today represent our best minds’ best work with the best Big Data available, color me unimpressed." Thankfully, that's not the best that Big Data can do. Banner ads just happen to be one of the most visible products of our data-driven times -- particularly for, say, a newspaper journalist.  

Big Data sounds a lot like Big Brother, I get that. There's a feeling of creepy intrusiveness that's hard to slide past. Worse yet, Big Data feels so much bigger than us, which is odd considering it's often used to craft a world that's to our liking. Personalization doesn't seem to be yielding humanization.  

Yet these concerns are too often the end of our discussion on data. They should instead be one very important waypoint toward discovering the massive potential that data-driven innovation brings. Stewardship should be threaded along each layer and link of data, with accountability resting at the end of the data decision chain.

Rampell says that she's skeptical about data's contribution to social welfare. Good, I say -- just don't stop there with your conclusion. Beyond the dollars and cents case for data -- $3 trillion a year for open data alone -- there is story after story of data's use for social good that are often too mundane for us to notice. We see it with bettering SNAP benefits for the poor, helping in domestic abuse cases, and more.

Our focus should be on furthering data for good -- for our economy and for the average American. All of our concerns over data should fit under this banner and be tackled with this end in mind.