Euan Semple is a public speaker, writer and executive coach. He helps organisations utilise and understand social media, showing its potential within the workplace. Here we share an article of his addressing the growing need for awareness in the era of big data, as more of our lives become digitised.

Big Data and Social - a Match Made in Heaven or Hell?

In the early days only big organisations could do computing and there were going to be five computers in the world.

We all know how that ended up.

Then only big organisations could do networking infastructure and getting online was the preserve of the workplace. But these days we carry ubiquitous network access 24 hours a day in our pockets.

Now we are led to believe that only big organisations can do big data. But it is our data. We are becoming increasingly aware what is done with the data, by whom, and for what. We are starting to care." - Doc Searls, co-author of The Cluetrain Manifesto and more recently The Intention Economy.


 This caring is currently showing itself in our wariness of Facebook and what it does with our data. The uncanny accuracy of those little ads that appear in our stream is beginning to trouble us. What do they say about us to others? What do they say about us to ourselves? I take comfort in their occasional inaccuracy but wonder what Facebook knows about my future when it keeps advertising self administered catheters to me!

 Our concerns will extend to the data we reveal about where we buy our fuel or our groceries; what goods we buy and how often; what food we have in our internet connected fridge and who gets to know; which doctors we visit and why; the biometric patterns generated by our wearable technology in our enthusiasm for the optimised self. We are beginning to realise the intimacy and vulnerability in revealing the patterns of our lives in all of their mundanity.

It is not just commercial organisations who have an interest in our data. The state does too. Big Data is uncomfortably close to Big Brother. I have already heard concerns about expressing our views online. The risk of someone in a position of authority putting two and two together and making five increases by the day. I wasn't too worried about the NSA and GCHQ snooping on our online activities until the Foreign Secretary, William Hague, said that "Law abiding Britons have nothing to fear from GCHQ"

What we see as the truth and our sense of the world around is steered by big data. Whether it is the returns to Google searches, our Facebook newsfeed, or advertising pitched to us as we walk around our cities, our world is being shaped by algorithms. The code that decides what data is interesting and what is done with it is in the hands of a very small number of people. The decisions that those people make about what is important in the patterns we make is not neutral. It cannot help but be affected by their cultural context and business objectives. We need to be aware of this and take responsibility for the consequences. It is

not good enough to say "Oh I don't understand technology", this is part of our civic responsibility. We have to be interested. We have to learn enough to know what we are getting ourselves into.

There is so much potential for big data to be used for good in all of its forms.

But we are also becoming more aware of the trade we make with those who collect data about us and the consequences of this trade. We are talking about our fears in our networks online and will become more concerned about what is going on over time. If we are to make the most of big data as a society we are going to have to learn to be more open about what we are doing with it and why. Communicating intentions is key and we need to remember that transparency works both ways!  

This article was originally published on IRM UK's monthly E-newsletter