Big Data: Opportunity or threat to citizens and companies?
Big Data is a term that describes a large volume of data, both structured and unstructured, that overwhelms a business on a day-to-day basis. To put into perspective this volume, Big Data is populated by interactions between roughly 3 billion people and machines, such as web applications, social media, in addition to all the unorganized data stemming from text heavy traditional data. The amount of data that’s being created and stored on a global level is almost incredible, and it keeps growing at an outstanding pace. That means that there’s even more potential to collect key insights for further development at any scale and context.
However, the point is what organizations do with such data, how do they interpret it, how do they manage it and more. At the moment, Big Data is being used in a majority of industries, such as banking, education, healthcare, government, manufacturing, and retail as an analysis tool for insights that lead to better decisions and strategic business moves. Until the last decade, the term Smart City started being conceived, and with it, the concern of Big Data’s functions shaping the current social, political and economic models with private citizens’ information.
Partnership with the private sector
The term of Smart City refers to cities that make full use of IT systems in order to increase operational efficiency, disseminate information to citizens and visitors, and to improve the quality of public services. The architect Eric Cassar believes that the transition from “building” to “smart building” could have a greater effect than the “phone” to “smartphone”. The key is the new way of living in the city, apart from all the new systems of sharing to foster mutual support and co-creation at the local level. The company is often forgotten about this project, but Smart City is a partnership between the city and companies: cities need companies’ technology and expertise.
The transition from “building” to “smart building” could have a greater effect than the “phone” to “smartphone”
The territorial alliances are necessary for companies to identify, seize and scale up opportunities in a smart and sustainable way. It is important for companies to be part of networks dedicated to sustainability and Smart Cities to keep informed, to share best practices and to identify potential business opportunities.
All areas of urban management can be the subject of a Smart City initiative: water consumption, building permits, emergency responses, snow removal, and so on. Improving data access is another key element of the Smart City concept, that’s why companies get involved in Smart City projects. One of the best examples is ENGIE, a French energy company that developed “Smart City AAS” (as a service) and supports local authorities in their digital transformation projects.
The relationship between Smart Cities and Big Data agendas provide tempting opportunities to improve people’s lives, act as an effective way to support economic growth while nurturing climate change and key environmental sustainability issues. What opportunities does this relationship bring, and what are the main challenges? Unquestionably, data is placed at the heart of the Smart City concept. This happens because city governments and businesses require all types of information to be able to provide applicable and reliable services and products to their citizens and customers.
As digitization becomes an essential part of everyday’s life, data collection has resulted in the accumulation of high amounts of data that can be used in various beneficial applications. Effective analysis and utilization of Big Data is a key factor for success in many businesses and services, thus, data from various resources is considered to be the most valuable asset of a Smart City (Bismart, 2017).
Definitely, Big Data’s rapid growth is becoming a strength for influencing in various aspects of Smart Cities. Numerous government entities are utilizing Big Data to support the development of Smart Cities around the world. This allows cities to maintain requirements on the applications that support smart city components, as well as developing increasing living standards.
Big Data lets cities achieve considerable levels of sustainability, resilience, and governance
There are many opportunities and benefits that Big Data offers to cities when making the decision to convert and become “smart” and have the power to act according to their needs. Such a decision brings the possibility to achieve considerable levels of sustainability, resilience, and governance. In addition, to improving the citizen’s quality of life and introducing intelligent management of infrastructures and natural resources, smart cities can (Inside BIGDATA, 2017):
1. Efficient resource utilization: Integrating solutions to have better and more controlled utilization of resources. Monitoring systems make it easier to spot waste points and better distribute resources while controlling costs, reducing energy and natural resources consumption. (Tyagi, 2017)
2. Better quality of life for citizens: With better services, more efficacy in living models, and less waste (of time and resources), Smart City citizens may have a better quality of life. This is the result of better planning on living/work spaces and locations, more efficient transportation systems, better and faster services, and the availability of wider information.
3. Data resource sharing: Enable collaboration and communication of data between institutions. This offers to citizens and government entities the chance to exchange and use the information effectively, increasing interconnectivity and data collection in order to facilitate collaboration across applications and services.
Big Data: The new Oil
Big Data can play a critical role in terms of gaining value for the Smart City’s decision-making purposes. However, Big Data utilization in a Smart City is in its upcoming phases and there are many controversial challenges that remain to be addressed.
The privacy of people and confidentiality of their data has been a major debate since the rise of Big Data. Solutions to this remain to be insufficient, mainly due to the rapid development of technology, Artificial Intelligence and the increasing complexity of algorithms. These developments challenge the proper establishment of regulations regarding ownership and use of Big Data by companies and governmental institutions. An interesting debate related to this is whether the general assumption that “whoever finds the data, can use it” (Sax, 2016) is justified.
According to the current data protection laws in Europe, data must be “specified, explicit and legitimate”. However, major challenges arise about the legitimate purpose of collecting data and evidently how to regulate in case the gathered data is reused (Edwards, 2015). Especially for the latter issue, it is evident that traditional regulations cannot cover the scope and complexity of Big Data usage. Other main topics in the ethical debate include the traceability of devices and vehicles, the (un)intended collection of communication data, the security of data systems in Smart Cities and the interrelation and economic interest of the public and private sector involved with Big Data.
Traditional regulations cannot cover the scope and complexity of Big Data usage
The power that comes with Big Data ownership and usage has been identified as “the new oil”, or the most valuable resource in the world today. We know that giants like Google and Amazon use our information. However, to what extent is our private data exchanged with governments and institutions and what are the consequences?
In addition to the unknown extent of information sharing between public and private sector, the use of Big Data in Smart Cities also raise concerns about the impact on society. Algorithms are based on various assumptions and their design is often targeted towards a certain part of society. This implies that the design of algorithms relies on certain values that may or may not be aligned with the values of Smart City’s inhabitants. As algorithms are increasing in complexity and are able to change in nature, issues arise relating to non-traceable discrimination of certain groups and its corresponding long-term implication on social behavior. Furthermore, the awareness of data use can have an explicit psychological effect on people that have to be considered (Lyon, 2003).
The big fight of this time
The concept of Big Data may come as a new concept to some outside of the innovative and business world, however as it can be evidenced, the aspects that it entails need to be studied, understood and properly managed. Due to the unprecedented amount of information and content that Big Data represents, it can be rightfully argued that rigorous regulations and ethical standards need to be implemented. The number of scholars and professionals calling for awareness towards the issue (King & Richards, 2014), should concern everyone. After all, a city is the collective term for citizens, the ones being impacted at this very moment.
Will cities be driven by the genuine desires of its people, or by the desires and lobbying of big companies? As coined by a privacy economist, “the big fight of this time is whether data is a force for freedom or a force that will hiddenly manipulate us” (Alessandro Acquisti at TedGlobal 2013). Will Big Data become the biggest asset of today’s economy? Most probably. The developed world continues to move forward with Big Data, it certainly makes sense. Albeit the many concerns it brings, there is strong evidence that if properly managed, it can also impulse social, economic and environmental initiatives. Responsible and transparent use of Big Data is and needs to be a priority for the private and non-private sectors. The Big Data revolution is looking for conscious business leaders.
Post written by the following current participants from the EADA’s Master in Sustainable Business & Innovation: René Mohwad (Lebanon), Marcela Costa (Brazil), Anouk Hut (The Netherlands) and José Benítez (Puerto Rico).