Friday, 26 September 2014

Big Data

Have you noticed the cameras that track you as you walk or drive around towns and cities? Thought about all the signals you send as you cross at intersections, use electricity in your house, make a call, or spend money?

This kind of 'big data' is collected on a mass scale and is being increasingly baked into the infrastructure of the places where we live.

In Chicago there is an initiative to track everything, always through a series of high tech lampposts and other sensor systems. The idea is to create a smart city - one where almost every aspect of life is tracked and turned into useful information for civic authorities and everyday people who want to know more about their day to day life.

In Christchurch the Sensing Cities initiative are making moves to be an integral part of the rebuild process - inserting sensors and code into many different aspects of the future cities infrastructure. And in my own city, Auckland, HP is developing a sophisticated system to coordinate more effective surveillance across the city.

So what does gathering this amount of data mean? If citizens are more immediately aware of how their actions and choices (such as cycling to work or taking public transport) are impacting the environment in real time (for example through displaying decreased air pollution) it's more likely changes in behaviour may result. However, not all of us feel comfortable in a world where our every action is tracked, analysed and converted into public policy or business strategy.

Most developed nations already have comprehensive sensor systems in place which have been slowly embedded into the social and physical infrastructure of towns and cities. Many systems, such as traffic control, would not run without these data collection networks. In this environment its important to maintain a degree of awareness over what information is relayed to others and what rights we have to anonymity or the right to be forgotten.

In NZ there has been some concern that tracking is occurring on a mass scale by outside intelligence agencies (i.e. NSA) but there seems to be a complete lack of understanding of how much we are tracked as we go about our day to day lives. Information is power, and with the right informations citizens can lead more informed and have many more choices available to them, but it is also important to ensure that big data is not used to exploit and manipulate rather than empower the masses.

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