Query Responsibly: Governing the Power of Big Data

Loraine Lawson

When I try to explain Big Data significance to non-techies, I use a simple analogy: “You know all that stuff that Hollywood shows cops using technology for - like pinpointing one person on a busy street from a cell phone number? We used to laugh about how ridiculous that is. Now? It’s not so ridiculous.”

I think that’s what a lot of people missed with this whole NSA PRISM debacle. They knew so little, they thought that kind of monitoring was going on already.

But technologists knew otherwise.

“We’re not talking about some James Bond-style spy mission here. We’re talking about Big Data,” ZapThink’s Jason Bloomberg writes in a recent must-read column, “Big Data Governance for Good or Evil: Lessons of the NSA PRISM Initiative.”


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Four Steps to a Big Data Strategy

And Big Data is definitely changing what’s possible, which means it’s also raising new questions about what’s necessary when it comes to governance, Bloomberg writes. Primarily, when we talk about data governance, the focus is on managing the data you use: Who has access to it? Who “owns” it?

But, he continues, the NSA PRISM initiative raises a more difficult question: How do you govern the data you’re not using?

The question itself feels like a koan. In fact, my mind goes blank just writing it. But that’s the type of unchartered governance questions we now face with Big Data, Bloomberg argues:

“Here, then, is PRISM Big Data lesson number one: It’s not just the data you want that are important, you also have to worry about the data you don’t want. … The lesson from PRISM is that we must also govern the dross: the data we don’t want, because they open up a range of governance challenges like the privacy issues at the core of the PRISM scandal.”

That’s not an insignificant challenge, since Big Data sets almost by definition contain a lot of “noise” and unusable data. That’s part of the value proposition of Hadoop and other Big Data technologies: sifting through that noise to find the relevant data, the revealing trends.

But you’ve still got a lot of data left over. It may be useless to you, but that doesn’t mean it’s useless to a hacker, a criminal or even your competitor, Bloomberg warns.

That’s why it’s not a question we can ignore.  “…the more powerful the technology, the more importance we must place on governance. So too with Big Data,” Bloomberg writes.

Or, as Spider Man’s Uncle Ben put it (or President Franklin D. Roosevelt, if you want to be historical), with great power comes great responsibility. Big Data requires a certain level of  maturity with data management, but alas, you’re the only one who will ensure you have that prerequisite.

Bloomberg outlines six Big Data lessons we can take away from the NSA PRISM scandal. If you’re involved with Big Data even a little bit, they’re worth reviewing, if for no other reason than lesson number four:

“Your Big Data analytics results may not only be valuable, they may also be dangerous. While it’s common to liken Big Data analytics to mining for gold, in reality it may be more like mining for uranium. True, uranium has monetary value, but put too much pure uranium in the same place and you’re asking for Big Trouble – Trouble with a capital T.”



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