Thursday, June 20, 2024

Big Data and Cambridge Analytica: 5 Big Picture Truths

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You’ve surely seen the countless headlines about Cambridge Analytica. The firm’s use of personal data from Facebook has prompted outraged claims and counterclaims. Calls for investigation, a #DeleteFacebook movement, Mark Zuckerberg called to Congress to testify.

The story, clearly, has a long way to run.

But allow me to leave the particulars of Cambridge and zoom up to the bigger picture about Big Data. Forget Facebook, forget that awkward video of Cambridge executives. What this affair reveals about ascendancy of data mining has far deeper implications than the immediate headlines.

1. This is the role that Big Data plays in our lives. It’s nothing new or even slightly unusual.

At the center of all the outrage about Cambridge is this: a Big Data company gathered data and then used it to persuade consumers, or at least attempt to.

This was not due to any “breach.” It’s about as common as doughnuts for breakfast – part of every normal day (though perhaps not the healthiest part). Marketers harvesting our data is so interwoven into our lives that we humans might miss it if were gone.

It was way back in 2012 that The New York Times revealed that Target analyzed data about purchasing patterns to predict if a customer is pregnant. At the time it was quite the shocker – widely reported – yet even then it was routine data analytics.

As the report noted, businesses “can buy data about your ethnicity, job history, the magazines you read, if you’ve ever declared bankruptcy or got divorced, the year you bought (or lost) your house, where you went to college, what kinds of topics you talk about online, whether you prefer certain brands of coffee, paper towels, cereal or applesauce, your political leanings, reading habits, charitable giving and the number of cars you own.”

In short, Big Data analysts know more about you than your spouse or best friend. And that’s old news.

2. Expect calls for regulation. Don’t expect much change.

Big Data professionals are aware of a romance that shows no sign of ending: Consumers and marketers are locked in an embrace that both are apparently quite happy about.

Marketers, of course, are always eager to scoop up any data from their beloved consumers. And we consumers are eager to share. Every tipsy party photo, every burger for lunch, every big event. A researcher gathered the Cambridge data using quirky Facebook quizzes. Zillions of users revealed their preferences – favorite movie? favorite vacation? – and hit Submit.

Privacy? Naw, we don’t care about privacy.

Our phones are the ultimate tracking devices. They’re like those ankle bracelets that prosecutors give to defendants, but more fashionable. How many people will put down their phone?

The Europeans, those lovers of regulation, enacted the GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation), which requires companies to protect the personal data of consumers within the EU. It goes into effect May 25, and it’s a laudable step for consumer protection.

American publishers/platforms doing business in Europe – like Facebook and Google – will be bound by the GDPR. Industry experts opine that the tech giants will alter privacy practices worldwide since they’ll be adapting for their European audience.

Still, regulation won’t change the fact that consumers don’t seem to care about privacy, beyond lip service. So on one side of the battle is sophisticated Big Data practitioners and marketers; on the other is privacy advocates protecting consumers who usually dismiss privacy.

Clearly the Big Data miners hold the upper hand for the foreseeable future.

3. The Cambridge news reflects that Big Data has produced “a cultural shift.”

What we now call Big Data has been around for ages. In the 90s it was called “business intelligence.” Its data nerd practitioners were generally ignored, with good reason – the numbers crunching software was limited.

It wasn’t until 2005 that the magic phrase “Big Data” was coined. Since then the power of data mining software has zoomed upward. It’s also become simpler to use. Now any junior sales rep can glean insight from the company data lake.

The Cambridge affair’s role as a milestone in this progress is ambiguous. Even if its data crunching made the key difference – debatable – it all turned into a public relations melt down. It suggests a great clumsiness, at the least.

In contrast, going forward Big Data will operate with a great seamless smoothness, for better or worse. Its practice won’t produce headlines, but will produce results – ever greater results.

Investment is gushing into Big Data. Research firm IDC estimates that revenues for Big Data will surge upward from $130.1 billion 2016 to more than $203 billion in 2020.

The growth of data science has led to “a cultural shift toward data-driven decision making,” says IDC. The sound of number crunching now emanates from cubicles across the land. We live in the Age of Metrics.

“IDC research shows that [Big Data] cognitive systems will be a major disruption and will significantly impact businesses, healthcare, work, society and economies.”

That dry statement portends a titanic shift in human decision making. Buckle your seat belts.

4. Not mentioned in the dark headlines: the Big Data force for good.

Clearly the Cambridge headlines carry the whiff of scandal. Yet if you look at Big Data in the larger sense, it holds vast potential to lift up humanity.

Notes the World Economic Forum: “Policymakers are beginning to realize the potential for channeling these torrents of data into actionable information…to identify needs and provide services for the benefit of low-income populations.”

Similarly, the United Nations’ Global Pulse initiative leverages Big Data for humanitarian goals. For instance, Global Pulse used privacy-protected data from mobile phones to monitor the outbreak of measles and typhoid in 2013, and also tracked major fires around the globe to enable quicker response.

Expect Big Data to get reams of bad press as Facebook’s data mining becomes the whipping boy. Expect hardly a single headline about Big Data’s potential for uplift, though it’s growing rapidly.

5. If you’re in business – or any competition – and you think you can compete without Big Data, think again.

Imagine a management team sitting at the control panel of a Big Data program. Across the glowing screen they see colored graphs and charts, shifting inputs and outputs. Arcing trend lines reveal the response to their latest ventures.

Now imagine another team across town. These managers have no data analytics program. They’re experienced and they have some hunches, so they take their best guess. Throw the dice and hope.

The differing results of these two teams reveals the competitive advantage of Big Data. Knowledge is power, and the first team’s data mining provides real knowledge. They’ll almost certainly outperform their flying-blind competitors.

Of course Big Data alone doesn’t produce success – we humans remain capable of foolishness regardless of data. But even a wise hunch goes further (usually) with some feedback from the numbers.

The experts who mine data are remarkably powerful, without guesswork. They know us intimately. They can push buttons we don’t even know we have. Statistics can be used to shape narratives – using psychographics and microtargeting – that move us in ways that old-fashioned marketing never could.

Bottom line: you can’t – you don’t even want to – compete without Big Data. Love it or hate it, it now rules our world.

cambridge analytica and big data analytics

This representation of the constant flow of data illustrates how Data Data software digests and analyzes information.

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