Big Data for the Common Good of Local Communities

Manuel Geissinger -

Big data could be one of the most important tools to assist human society in the future. Our increasingly complex society will be able to continue to move forward based on rational, scientific facts and figures within the context of the needs of humanity.

Neuroscience is giving us more insight into ourselves and we are learning that many of the elements that we have always thought of as being uniquely human are based on neurological/biological processes that can be put into algorithms. The more we know, the more interesting the question is – what makes us human? Given the progress being made in artificial intelligence, this is an important question.

Governments have lost touch with the people

We still largely rely on our governments to guide us through these ever-changing developments and ensure that the democratic processes that have ruled us since WWII are beneficial to mankind. Disputes are generally settled with the assistance of our democratic institutions using common sense, scientific facts statistical information and so on.

One could argue that the data and information that underlie these processes are used for the common good. However, over the last 30 years a large proportion of the population has not seen the positive results from their political systems that they had hoped for and they are now rebelling against politicians who are increasingly using facts and figures for their own political purposes.

Selective use of this information is creating a dangerous breakdown of trust right through our democratic system. This form of mass surveillance and mass manipulation is one of the worst Big Brother-like scenarios that one can imagine.

Despite this misuse of big data, it will have to be reason, facts and statistics that guide us through the many social, environmental and economic challenges that society is facing. It is crucial that this takes place within the structures of our democratic principles as well as within our emotional and other ‘soft’ values.

So far big data has mainly been used for commercial purposes, for sometimes questionable intelligence activities and for downright criminal activities like hacking, stealing, political interference, etc.

There is an urgent need for big data to be used for the common good. A rapid rebalancing is needed to see big data being used for the benefit of our society. We shouldn’t be put off by its misuse and bury our heads in the sand hoping it will go away, or – as the new conservative forces in politics would have us believe – that the answer lies in returning to the way things were in ‘the good old days’.

Big data for the common good

We should face the big data challenges head on. Universities in Germany and the Netherlands have launched the Data for Humanity Initiative, encouraging people and organisations to use the following principles:

  • Do no harm
  • Use data to help create peaceful coexistence
  • Use data to help vulnerable people and people in need
  • Use data to preserve and improve the natural environment
  • Use data to help create a fair world without discrimination

New regulations and legislation might be needed to ensure that big data is used for the common good and that it takes privacy and human rights issues equally seriously. At present, most big data is in the hands of corporations who have shown little interest in the common good. Most of their big data activities are clouded in secrecy and used to gain competitive advantage. The work of Yuval Nora Harari warns of a big data dictatorship if we don’t get this right.

One of the first critical areas will be healthcare. New medical innovations will make it possible for people to obtain information about potential illnesses and personalised big data solutions will be on offer to mitigate these and create better health and lifestyle outcomes.

The personal health benefits could be enormous and as a result people may be less concerned about their personal data, but the reality is that the availability of this information could be used in a positive and a negative way. The latter could lead to discrimination by insurance companies and governments. Also, different cultures might look for different outcomes – what leeway will there be for them?

With the use of predictive analytics and complex algorithms, allowance must be made for error and there needs to be a system of fairness in place to guide this. A key principle should be for the ownership of all personal data to rest with the individual person so that they can decide to share that information or not on a permission-based footing. We have been recommending this approach for the last two decades, but I must say, without much success.

There may be situations where an opt-out rather than an opt-in system could be a more effective or efficient option, but that would necessitate the restoration of trust in the political systems that guide such decisions.

Rather than relying on the big organisations that are currently leading the development of big data, we should encourage the national statistical institutions to start looking for big data that can help guide us through the myriad issues we are facing.

It is, of course, vital that these national institutions are based on democratic principles and that they are not used for party political reasons.

Bureaus of statistics a result of the Enlightenment

Interestingly, many of our democratic institutions started their life in the 19th century as a consequence of the Enlightenment when there was a new drive towards a rational approach to politics, scientific, social and economic developments. This needed to be underpinned by a framework of national measurements. One of the first National Bureau of Statistics was established in Paris in the early 1800s. Over the last 200 years these institutions, which are now established in every country, have looked after uniformity of data collection, integration and analytics. They are supported by a large group of independent and trusted data experts involved in interpreting the data that guides policy decisions.

The effects of the Enlightenment have been enormous – and they are still being delivered. There are now more democratic countries than ever before. Overall global poverty is decreasing; literacy is increasing; wars and the number of people killed in wars continue to decline; and average lifestyle around the globe keeps improving. We need to ensure that this upwards trend continues.

The philosopher Immanuel Kant, a key figure in what we might call the modern Enlightenment, in 1784 described the Enlightenment as follows:

‘Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-imposed immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to use one’s understanding without guidance from another.’

We most certainly have that ability to think for ourselves and it is our responsibility as human beings to do so at a time when fake news, lies and other forces are trying to undermine our democratic values and principles. If we don’t stand up to these undermining forces they could cause extensive damage.

Decentralisation of facts and figures

A key problem now is that many people no longer believe they are receiving positive social and economic outcomes; they have ceased to trust the underlying data and are reverting to emotions, vague memories of a much better past and imaginary futures.

While the statistical information on levels of poverty, migration, GDP, unemployment, etc. that governments collect and use may be correct at macro-levels, people live in micro-environments and here the ‘facts and figures’ are quite different and not just between national and local situations. Importantly, there are great differences in facts and figures within towns, suburbs, rural regions and so on.

Differences between communities are significantly more complex now than when these institutions were first established and data collection began.

National governments that are unwilling to accept criticism from their people will continue to lose trust. People don’t live in some artificial national average – they live in real communities with real problems and issues that are not necessarily reflected in national facts and figures.

It has become clear that for our society to move forward its governance needs to be more decentralised and that all of us need to participate in that process. Technology can assist us here.

Big data in connected cities

Cities need much better data to run their communities. There are great opportunities to win political trust back at these local levels. A key issue here is that this spatial decentralisation needs to be supported by functional decentralisation so that cities, regions and provinces have the autonomy to enable them to successfully address the local issues of education, healthcare, environment, jobs, economy, mobility, etc. A decentralisation of political systems and institutions is needed to assist these developments.

This does not mean that big data is not needed at a national level as well. It is equally essential there. Big companies will need to work far more closely with cities to better reflect the facts and figures of local communities.

The leading smart cities understand the need for these news structures. Councils of Mayors are becoming a new political force. Cities already have vast amounts of data that can be used to improve their local situations. However, to maximise the use of big data for the common good of their citizens, a breakdown of the many data silos within their bureaucracies will be necessary. Little ivory towers could be created where security, safety and privacy issues are used to stop the data from being used in a broader and more open context.

An early lesson learned by smart city pioneers is that it is not about open data free-for-all – it is about open data in a controlled environment.

Actively involving local citizens in the various ‘smart city’ projects is critical and can generate further data relevant to their local situation. There are already good examples of this in some of the leading smart cities.

Big data is far too important a development to be left just in the hands of commercial or ‘secret’ organisations. Cities that already have a holistic data strategy in place could take a leadership role here. Within such a plan, over time other cities and communities could learn from them and follow in their footsteps. Like trusted national statistical organisations, we also need professional statisticians and big data analysts at a city level who are able to make unambiguous and objective observations about their local economy and local community.

Global Seven News

Paul Budde

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