The Dichotomy Of Big Data’s Risks And Benefits

Quentin Clark

I’ve been working on and around data for a large part of my career, and consider myself fortunate for it – the topic of data is never boring, is very impactful, and even philosophical.

Beyond the obvious importance of data management in the computing industry, the more fascinating questions are: What is the impact of data on society? How has information transformed how we work and live and what is yet to come? How is Big Data (and the entanglement of analytics, ML, etc.) enabling us as individuals, as businesses, and as a society — to sense, measure and understand everything around us?

Technology changes have made data — from just about everything — much more accessible with infinite possibilities of measuring, analyzing and learning from it. We are talking about Big Data, which leads to more questions about how to use it, share it, and leverage it. And then there are the philosophical questions: Who owns the data? What are our rights to use it?

Before attempting to answer any of these questions, I start with the assertion that the right insights delivered in the right way will make every person in the role they play — a store manager, a repair engineer, a doctor, a sales executive — great at their job. The diversity, analytics, and experiences over a wide set of data opens new opportunities; opportunities to retool how businesses operate by embracing and making actionable data signals that previously were not available.

As we explore reaching this value, we, as an industry, will need to figure out how to balance the right privacy and other socioeconomic concerns. Individuals and institutions will need to be more cognizant of the data we are sharing and how we think about the rights and derivatives of information. Right now, consumers are giving away more information about themselves than they generally are even aware of.

Take the example of mapping apps on your mobile device. These apps have changed how you navigate through a city, with directions from walking to driving to taking public transportation. Long gone are the days of writing directions down or drawing a map in the back of a paper napkin. When you use these apps, you are very innocently giving information on where you are, where you spend time, and in aggregate, who you spend time with and who you choose to do business with.

Many applications are tracking where you are all the time, even when you are not using the app. An app may know where you live, where you work, where you go to see a doctor, what kind of doctor you are seeing, where you shop, and maybe even what you are shopping for. Whoever owns that app can correlate this data across everyone using the app, and suddenly something that seemed like a very innocuous map app knows all sorts of interesting things about you and is gaining insights from the collective data of all app users.

Today these apps usually ask, “Are you okay with this application using location data?” When the question should really be about the rights of using your data, and it should disclose how they plan to use the data, and for how long. The way things are constructed today, they can collect these data, do the analytics, learn a lot about you, and then sell that data off to someone else.

The balance of this is that we are getting valuable services from these applications, and many of us are willing to make the choice. Most users’ choice is heavily weighted towards the value they get from sharing their information. But they want the visibility and are going to increasingly want more detailed usage rights.

From a software industry perspective, we need a more sophisticated understanding of data rights, data protection, and privacy. I believe that institutions need to spend time pondering on the question: For what purpose are we using this data and how long are we going to use it for? In other words, I’m very willing, as a consumer, to give this information to a particular institution for a particular purpose, for a period of time. And I should have a reasonable expectation that after that period of time, they will forget my information.

There is still work to be done in the industry to protect the user, and users need to be more aware of their digital options and careful about the choices they are making. On the other hand, the advent of Big Data has many possibilities for added value, and its impact outweighs these issues.

So, going back to the beginning — Big Data has already had a significant impact on society, on how we work and live; we have just begun to scratch the surface of Big Data. At SAP, we have a unique opportunity in the business application world to augment people’s ability to do their jobs better, faster, easier, and smarter. That is why we have invested in in-memory computing, which is key to realizing the digital transformation of our customers. But there are so many more questions than answers industry-wide; it is all still being figured out. We really are at the beginning of this journey, not anywhere near the end.

I will share some of my thoughts on the impact of Big Data in the enterprise, and my insights of where all of this is heading in my next blog.

For more insight on the implications of data analytics, see Building Trust With Big Data.

This story originally appeared on SAP Business Trends.


Quentin Clark

About Quentin Clark

Quentin Clark is the chief technology officer of SAP. He hold global responsibility for defining the direction for SAP and for advancing the company’s business strategy. This includes heading SAP’s corporate strategy, corporate development, partner strategy and development, and portfolio and pricing strategy activities. Reports to CEO, serves on SAP's Global Managing Board.