It’s all the rage: Big data. The bigger the better. But why do we love it so much? And how will it help us gain deeper and more meaningful insights into (human) behaviour?
Big data is a rather abstract concept, but it does what it says on the tin. It’s a dataset, but just a lot bigger than your average dataset. Depending on your field, when doing observations or experiments, there is a certain sample size (number of objects/subjects studied). This sample size often depends on the resources available to the researcher. It can be a question of money, time, research assistants or the general availability of participants.
When we look at the field of neuroscience (and its derivatives such as neuropharmacology and neuroeconomics) we can see most of these factors at play. Putting someone in an fMRI machine to do a scan of their brain functioning is extremely costly. You’ll run through your research budget in no time. It’s time consuming too. Preparing the participant, the machine, the experiment in itself. Then hoping it all worked and the data has come out well, or at least well enough. And then the data analysis. That part isn’t exactly easy when it comes to neuroscience. Also, how many people with impaired pre-frontal cortex functioning as a result of external injury, that are willing to be researched, do you think there are? Big data helps. Now I have to admit it might not be all that yet for neuroscience, but it sure as hell is great for behavioural science and fields that study human behaviour. The issues most of these fields have had is that most big, easy to create datasets are self-reports. It involves people recalling and stating what they think they have done, or what they would have done. Big data works differently. It tracks people. It shows us what you have done, not what you said you have. You’d be surprised how big the difference between these two can be….
So big data is the reason you have to click “accept cookies” 600 times in a month. It’s because someone, somehow, somewhere is collecting data on you. If you ask any social media platform to send you all the information they have on you, which they are mandated by law to do if you were to ask, you’ll be amazed. Tens of pages (if not hundreds…) will be send to you, with information about your locations, activities, events, products purchased, financial products registered, advertisements watched, videos liked, suggested marketing products…. Even your friends, your moments and tailored marketing ploys are listed. There’s no end to this. Imagine this for everyone in the world. The data is massive. The opportunities for analysing it are endless. We can learn so much.
It’s amazing because we can identify which group of the population is most likely to be affected by financial regulations. When it comes to big financial datasets I can see which income group benefits from certain financial products such as online banking, contactless or credit cards, and which groups don’t benefit or are made worse off. As such we can prescribe policies, different products, regulate better. We can customize plans and products for you, help you out.
We can also turn against you. We can find out where you live, your credit card number, how much you are in debt, who you owe that debt to. Where you use your cards and what for. We can pretty much trace your steps on a day to day basis. I can find out where you are going. The locations you check into, the public transport you take (and have paid for). The food you eat, the food you like. What you find funny, the political opinion you subscribe to most.
I can’t just track you. I can trick you. I can make sure you only see opinions that simile yours. You’ll think the whole world shares your opinion, because it’s the only one you see. Guess what the US elections looked like on Facebook. Or Brexit on twitter. I can promote extremism through this.
Now of course, “I” can’t do this. I don’t have this data on you, neither do I have control over a social media network. But Facebook does. So do Twitter and Instagram, which if I’m correct, are both currently owned by Facebook. They know everything. And yes, that is not a great thought.
Whereas academics want big datasets to do research, companies will hardly have such a benevolent or rather neutral outcome in mind. Academics want to know. Companies want to make money. I am aware that this is a blatant generalisation, sorry, sue me. Still, it’s good that the data is out there, and as such it should be used. But for what?
As I mentioned before, I work with big data. It helps me understand how people actually use and react to financial products. Who benefits, who doesn’t, and how to help the latter. That all sounds very wholesome. But if I can figure out who is being squeezed dry and how that works, so can someone else. And they might not hold your benefit in the highest of regards. They don’t want to understand, they want to exploit.
What can you do? Well, you can’t really do much. The refusal of accepting cookies often results in not being able to use the site or service at all. What you can do is be aware of what you put online. If you don’t want people to know where you are, switch the location tracker on your phone off. Don’t check in anywhere, just leave it. You can also ask yourself if using the service is worth it compared to how much information you need to give up. Again, ask the company what information they have on you. Comb it through. Make up the balance. Is it worth to continue using this site?
If it is, and you continue using the service, just hope that your data will be handled by someone like me, and not someone like Zuckerberg.