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July 9, 2014

Big Data Practitioners Ponder Privacy Issues

A panel of big data executives acknowledged the need for trust, privacy and transparency in the handling of consumer information and called for rules of the road to ensure that privacy concerns do not derail technology innovation driven by big data.

The executives addressed the issues during an event, “Big Data and the Policy Behind Big Ideas,” organized by the web site, The event was co-sponsored by the consumer electronics giant Philips.

Brent Shafer, CEO of Philips North America, noted at the top: “It’s not the quantity of data that is revolutionary. What is making a difference is that we can do something with that data.”

Philips is a major supplier of LED lighting. Shafer noted that LED installations in cities could also provide municipal officials with “real-time access to actionable data” such as “real-time monitoring and measurement,” Shafer said.

Addressing the privacy issue, 1776 co-founder Evan Burfield noted: “The amount and granularity of data that large institutions are [collecting about consumers] is staggering, and it’s unbelievably powerful when you look at what that can mean for transportation, delivery of social services, what it can mean for health care and education.

“But it also presents very, very serious privacy concerns for the individual,” added Burfield, who’s company bills itself as a hub for technology startups. “It’s a federal issue, it’s a local issue, it spans government, it spans the private sector.”

Privacy concerns must be addressed in order to “unlock the potential of these technologies,” he added.

One area where some rules are already in place is the regulated health care field. Naseer Hashim, CEO of Imaging Advantage, noted that in health care “we have the opposite problem where it is so opaque that there isn’t enough information.” Hashim explained that patients often do not even have access to prior medical records like medical images when they see a doctor.

Hashim further cautioned that there is general confusion about what big data is and can do. “It’s the ability to aggregate large amounts of data in order to bring specific solutions to people,” he said.

“It’s important to maintain privacy in patient information and consumer information,” Hashim acknowledged, “but we don’t want this to become a barrier to what I think is essential innovation.”

Gaining consumer trust in sectors like transportation will be fundamental, added Wade Rosado, director of analytics at Urban Insights. “Protecting the privacy of individuals is definitely a necessity in the long term for sustainable growth in the provisioning of transportation infrastructure and services.”

Added Rosado, “There needs to be a direct connection between the users who have a need for transportation access and those who are provisioning those services. If that trust is eroded through improper use of personal information, that can’t be achieved.”

Tom Schenk, director of analytics for the city of Chicago, added that open data efforts being led by government agencies also require that “we have to be cautious about not releasing too much information” that would result in “accidental identification” of consumers. Sometimes, Schenk added, the data released under openness initiatives can be “too granular.”

Schenk said Chicago has also launched a predictive analytics effort designed to leverage information that can be used in day-to-day municipal operations.

Related items:

Big Data Helps Drive Transportation Planning

Big-Data Backlash: Medical Database Raises Privacy Concerns