Our whole era of modern technology is defined by the exponential growth in the amount of data being generated and make available to us. It is often remarked as being as significant to us now, as iron in the iron age, or steam power in the industrial revolution. Much of it however, whilst changing what we do hasn’t really improved our lives significantly. For example, the ability to buy books cheaply and quickly hasn’t driven a book reading revolution. Nor has the ability to book cheap flights online.
The impact that technology can have however can be remarkably positive and this is something that we at Gas-Sense are strongly supporting. Straight after the 2010 disaster in Haiti, private companies made their satellite images freely available of Haiti. This meant that the open source mapping project (OSM), was able to rapidly produce realtime documentation of the destruction. With details of all the refugee camps, the damaged areas and accessibility details, relief workers turned to this resource as the most reliable method of allowing them to deliver effective aid amongst the chaos. This is just one example of the remarkable impact that open data can have.
However, this was dependant on the private companies making data they had, available to the community. However, by sharing personal data and leveraging machine learning, the general public can create similar and in many cases better data. Google Maps is a good example, where their traffic feedback pulls data from all connected smartphones, to establish what speed any road is running at as as such give anyone feedback as to which route is most congested. In my mind, this is not very creepy, as many suggest anything to do with your personal data is. This isn’t a personal a Google looking up your name on Facebook, searching a database for your phone number and then getting your exact location, it is a computer algorithm monitoring everyone, amassing the data and then making it freely available to everyone. And who cares if they make some money from advertising on the maps, they had to invest to make it all possible.
Similarly, the recent Edward Snowden revelations, where he leaked NSA data, to highlight the global extent of their spying. Now there are a lot of very worrying issues with the way the American Government (not that they were the only ones doing it) acted around this. The lying to congress, denial of actions and potentially rogue and unregulated or documented actions of some of the agents, are just a few of the issues. However, fundamentally if I was asked if I would prefer to have all of my digital presence monitored by a set of computer algorithms run by the government, or be under threat of terrorism, I would choose the latter every time. If the issues are presented clearly openly and proper controls are put in place, then I see no issue with using peoples personal data. In the same way that you accept that you are constantly watched by CCTV in public places or that there are speed cameras on the roads.
I propose that people think twice when getting caught up in the media hype about how bad personal data invasion is and how you should revolt against it. I do however think, that properly understanding that data privacy and usage is currently pretty unregulated and many companies are staying one step ahead of legislators to abuse people’s privacy, is critically important. We must ensure that data usage is clearly expressed and that we are vocal about what is acceptable and what isn’t, technology companies must be responsible with the customers data.