Fair Warning: Most of ‘Your’ Big Data Belongs to Someone Else

Loraine Lawson

Jer Thorp has a bit of bad news for all the executives who love to declare, “Big Data is the new oil.”

The implication being, of course, that Big Data will make lots of money, and all you have to do is mine it.

The metaphor is wrong for many reasons, argues Thorp in a recent Harvard Business Review blog post.

Thorp brings a bit of a different background to Big Data. He’s more of a creative/academic type, it seems. He’s the data artist in residence at the New York Times, but his background suggests he’s more vested in research and theory. He’s the adjunct professor in New York University’s ITP program and co-founder of the Office for Creative Research, a multi-disciplinary research group devoted to finding new modes of engaging with data.

But his unique point of view brings much-needed perspective to the Big Data “boom.”

First, he points out, the oil metaphor as it’s usually used is bad because unlike oil, data is the “ultimate renewable resource.”

Second, when the oil metaphor does work, it’s still bad, because it points to some major problems with how businesses and other organizations are profiting from Big Data.

“Our browsing habits, our conversations with friends, our movements and location — all of these things are being monetized,” he writes. “Here, perhaps we can invoke a comparison to fossil fuel in a useful way: where oil is composed of the compressed bodies of long-dead micro-organisms, this personal data is made from the compressed fragments of our personal lives. It is a dense condensate of our human experience.”

And yet, everyone’s treating this data as though it has nothing to do with real people or that those people might have rights where that data is concerned.


And at some point, that will have ramifications, such as government regulations. Thorp notes in the reader comment that at some point, he suspects that Europe, at least, will take legislative measures, forcing companies to provide a “download mechanism” so people can see and control their own data.

That’s data governance on a whole new level, and Thorp isn’t the only one to propose it. Jim Harris, an independent consultant and author of the OCDQ blog, has long argued why data ownership and governance should belong to the users and customers who create the data — not the organizations that simply monitor, store and mine it.

Technologists will often write pieces that warn about the dangers inherent in a new technology and the need for some sort of ethical self-restraint.

Unfortunately, from what I’ve seen these many years, it usually doesn’t go much further … until citizens catch on and demand restrictions from their government.

However, Thorp offers a clear takeaway for those who care to listen: Companies that take into account the human elements of Big Data will be at an advantage in the long run.



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