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It's Time To Stop Demonizing Big Data

Information gleaned from digital sources must be used in strict accordance with the law. But it's too useful to simply vilify and disregard.

Data gathering in Toronto
Data gathering in Toronto
Sebastián Halperín*

-OpEd-

BUENOS AIRES — Recent actions taken in response to the leaking of Facebook data offer a good opportunity to shed a bit of light on the development of new — and often demonized — data processing and analysis technologies.

Advances made in information management systems from multiple sources offer us resources that, until very recently, were unimaginable. The possibility of using vast quantities of data to identifying groups of individuals that share patterns of behavior has become a precious and strategic supply-side component for many organizations. We must add to this the possibility of integrating various information sources that can contribute to decision-making.

This is where Big Data offers resources that are increasingly important in both business and public administration. In places like Estonia, for example, it is being used to identify fraudulent activities relating to tax evasion or money laundering. In England, Big Data is helping shape plans to redevelop London's public transport.

For obvious reasons, researchers using these technologies must respect the strictest ethical standards. Also, those standards need to be enforced. But we shouldn't start by simply demonizing such technologies with Big Brother references and warnings about their potential for social control. We can criticize Big Data, in other words, and must pay due attention to the possible consequences of its inappropriate use. But we also need to consider its benefits and embrace it.

But we shouldn't think of Big Data as synonymous with illegality, because it's not.

Like in all sectors, polling professionals and market researchers must adhere to ethnical codes and procedures. They're also subject to the scrutiny of various national and international bodies, which set limits on their activities and the tools they use. And that's a good thing. Bodies like WAPOR, which has offices in Buenos Aires, or ESOMAR, a European agency, set basic norms regarding confidentiality in use of information and non-divulgence of the identity of participants in polls or studies. More recently they've updated their rules to encompass the impact of new technologies on research.

Photo: Ecole Polytechnique/Flickr

Certainly, much remains to be done regarding personal data protection and optimization of accountability procedures by organizations handling this mass of information. It's crucial, for example, that users be given necessary assurances in terms of respecting personal identities when it comes to processing or keeping their information, for example through agreement requests.

But we shouldn't think of Big Data as synonymous with illegality, because it's not. To change that perception, we ought to stop with the "to be or not to be" type of debate and instead ask more constructive questions, such as how to develop the technology to meet the demands of new challenges.

*The author is a sociologist, political scientist and market researcher.

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Society

In Northern Kenya, Where Climate Change Is Measured In Starving Children

The worst drought in 40 years, which has deepened from the effects of climate change, is hitting the young the hardest around the Horn of Africa. A close-up look at the victims, and attempts to save lives and limit lasting effects on an already fragile region in Kenya.

Photo of five mothers holding their malnourished children

At feeding time, nurses and aides encourage mothers to socialize their children and stimulate them to eat.

Georgina Gustin

KAKUMA — The words "Stabilization Ward" are painted in uneven black letters above the entrance, but everyone in this massive refugee camp in Kakuma, Kenya, calls it ya maziwa: The place of milk.

Rescue workers and doctors, mothers and fathers, have carried hundreds of starving children through the doors of this one-room hospital wing, which is sometimes so crowded that babies and toddlers have to share beds. A pediatric unit is only a few steps away, but malnourished children don’t go there. They need special care, and even that doesn’t always save them.

In an office of the International Rescue Committee nearby, Vincent Opinya sits behind a desk with figures on dry-erase boards and a map of the camp on the walls around him. “We’ve lost 45 children this year due to malnutrition,” he says, juggling emergencies, phone calls, and texts. “We’re seeing a significant increase in malnutrition cases as a result of the drought — the worst we’ve faced in 40 years.”

From January to June, the ward experienced an 800 percent rise in admissions of children under 5 who needed treatment for malnourishment — a surge that aid groups blame mostly on a climate change-fueled drought that has turned the region into a parched barren.

Opinya, the nutrition manager for the IRC here, has had to rattle off these statistics many times, but the reality of the numbers is starting to crack his professional armor. “It’s a very sad situation,” he says, wearily. And he believes it will only get worse. A third year of drought is likely on the way.

More children may die. But millions will survive malnutrition and hunger only to live through a compromised future, researchers say. The longer-term health effects of this drought — weakened immune systems, developmental problems — will persist for a generation or more, with consequences that will cascade into communities and societies for decades.

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