Big Data and Data Inequality: Research Is Just The Beginning

There was a recent hoo-ha at a scientific conference in France, when Bernardo Huberman was furious when researchers from Google and a contributing university presenting results of social data analysis declined to share the data.

John Markoff, Big Data Troves Stay Forbidden to Social Scientists via

The issue came to a boil last month at a scientific conference in Lyon, France, when three scientists from Google and the University of Cambridge declined to release data they had compiled for a paper on the popularity of YouTube videos in different countries.

The chairman of the conference panel — Bernardo A. Huberman, a physicist who directs the social computing group at HP Labs here — responded angrily. In the future, he said, the conference should not accept papers from authors who did not make their data public. He was greeted by applause from the audience.

In February, Dr. Huberman had published a letter in the journal Nature warning that privately held data was threatening the very basis of scientific research. “If another set of data does not validate results obtained with private data,” he asked, “how do we know if it is because they are not universal or the authors made a mistake?”

He added that corporate control of data could give preferential access to an elite group of scientists at the largest corporations. “If this trend continues,” he wrote, “we’ll see a small group of scientists with access to private data repositories enjoy an unfair amount of attention in the community at the expense of equally talented researchers whose only flaw is the lack of right ‘connections’ to private data.”

Facebook and Microsoft declined to comment on the issue. Hal Varian, Google’s chief economist, said he sympathized with the idea of open data but added that the privacy issues were significant.

“This is one of the reasons the general pattern at Google is to try to release data to everyone or no one,” he said. “I have been working to get companies to release more data about their industries. The idea is that you can provide proprietary data aggregated in a way that poses no threats to privacy.”

The debate will only intensify as large companies with deep pockets do more research about their users. “In the Internet era,” said Andreas Weigend, a physicist and former chief scientist at Amazon, “research has moved out of the universities to the Googles, Amazons and Facebooks of the world.”

And of course, big data is worth big money – leaving aside the privacy concerns – and controlling access to that data is central to the aspirations of companies like Google, Facebook, and others.

Research is just the first place where the latent data inequality of the post normal world will come to light. We will each of us – as individuals – be divided from the inherent value of information about our activities and the inferences that can be made about them. As a society, we will find corporations that do not have our interests at heart working to exploit the potential value of our aggregated data exhaust. We are an exploitable resource – like the oceans of fish or the oil beneath the ground – and these companies plan to harvest all the value without our involvement.

We will find that we don’t own the information about ourselves anymore than we own our DNA. (Yes, others can patent your genes: see The Tissue-Industrial Complex.)

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