Why Data Will Either Defeat Us or Set Us Free

The gold rush of the last decade has been data; tons and tons of data. Big data can have huge upsides for businesses that implement it. However, while businesses stand to benefit, it could come at a cost to individuals interacting with and doing business with the companies collecting their data.

As consumers, we’re constantly being watched and analyzed by these businesses only to be reached with more effective and personalized marketing messages. If we continue to hand over power and influence (through data) to companies, we will be helpless against their ability to drive us towards certain actions, like purchasing their products.

Companies of All Sizes Are Using Big Data to Improve Their Businesses

When people think of “big data” they likely think of companies like Google, Facebook, Amazon, and Netflix. While these companies are certainly leading the way in data collection, aggregation, and analysis, small companies are also getting on board. Small businesses may use tools provided by Google or Amazon to process their own business data, but the data is coming from their own customers and processes.

Positive Impacts of Big Data

  • Improvements In Efficiency: Big data allows businesses to track processes from start to finish and analyze each step of the process. Companies can identify problems more quickly, minimize costs and optimize their customers’ journeys.
  • Better Quality Control: If data is collected throughout the product journey, any hiccups in that operation can easily be identified. This will minimize customer returns or negative press about flawed or imperfect products.
  • Faster and Better Innovation: Analyzing data can reveal business needs and pivots that would otherwise go unnoticed. This lets businesses chase new opportunities, and have a better idea of what will be successful and what won’t be early on.

Negative Impacts of Big Data

  • Expensive Adoption Costs: Changing your business practices to integrate and support big data can require training existing employees, hiring new workers, and paying for costly compliance measures.
  • Opportunities for Hacks & Data Breaches: Collecting information about your customers and their behavior is extremely valuable for businesses, but it also creates risks for hacks or data breaches. Losing control of people’s data can cost businesses a lot to recover from.
  • Mass Surveillance & Privacy Concerns: If every business we interact with collects information about our behavior those businesses have great power to reach and influence potential and existing customers. Each company that uses big data contributes to a culture that normalizes surveillance. What happens when the government conducts the same level of surveillance as private businesses? If businesses are given a free pass to track their customers, those businesses have a responsibility to keep customers’ information protected and secure.

The Human Gets Lost In A Data World

In a world totally driven by data, it’s easy to forget the human side of things. If we prioritize what data tells us over direct human interaction, many processes will lose the human element that is actually quite important.

For example, consider how the hiring process works for most jobs, a person presents a resume and then goes through an interview process and is selected by the hiring manager or the person they interviewed with. If we replace that process with an algorithm that simply determines the best fit based on data about the candidates, we’re essentially turning people into numbers.

This is already happening in many ways. Consider people’s credit scores, which are basically numbers that represent a person’s likelihood to pay back a loan. Before this system was implemented, banks had to rely on personal relationships to determine if a person was creditworthy. This system ignores any relationship that a person may have established, but it also makes that decision much more efficient for lending institutions.

Big Data Is Here To Stay

Big data isn’t going anywhere. Data has proven to be a valuable business asset that simply can’t be ignored. Businesses will continue to reap the benefits of data-driven decision making and optimization. It’s yet to be seen if these same benefits will work their way into the lives of everyday people, but there is certainly a path forward where people use data more and more for their own personal benefit.

People already use data on a massive scale for things like fitness tracking and product recommendations online. Data is here and we need to embrace the positives and continue to minimize the negative impacts.

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