In what has become a data-driven world, your organization’s data is valuable. It has become the “keys to the kingdom,” so to speak. Very few companies today could function without data, especially good data. However, I would suggest that more important than data, is information. Data provides the building blocks, but information is really the consumable outcome that can be used as a competitive edge.
In recent years, big data and predictive analytics have made great strides in helping organizations mine their data. We look for patterns in people’s behavior, hoping to understand or predict what our customers will purchase in the future. We are now at the stage where we want to anticipate what people will do next before they even know! While big data and predictive analytics have made significant contributions to the technology field and many organizations are now seeing data’s value, there is a dark side to all of this that we rarely discuss.
Patterns in human behavior do not indicate correlation to events or activities nor causation. Yet organizations “tinkering” with big data talk about information as if it does. This is where the role of the data scientist—someone who has a diverse background in computer science, data architecture, and, especially, social science—becomes so important. Human behavior is far from predictable, and making decisions based on patterns discovered in data can be disastrous or even harm an organization’s reputation. Take the story about Target from 2012, for example, about the pregnant teenager who was sent coupons for baby supplies before all of her family knew she was pregnant. No one at Target meant for this to disrupt a family or cause any harm. Its data indicated a common pattern in consumer behavior, and the automated processes in place did what they were created to do.
As technology professionals, herein lies the question: What are our ethical and social responsibilities with respect to the impact of new and emerging technologies and processes that we invent? We live in a global environment, where ripples in one country’s economy can be felt all over the world. The same holds true for technology. With the emergence of artificial intelligence and augmented reality, not to mention the Internet of Things, we are enabling technology to do amazing things in fields such as education and healthcare, reaching into remote and rural areas to help people all over the world. However, within the past few weeks, it has come to light how vulnerable some of our networked devices are, leaving us open to cyberattacks. Today, cars send data to manufacturers, and medical devices such as infusion pumps and pacemakers connect to healthcare centers, and these are all good things. But, at the same time, we have opened a Pandora’s box of unintended consequences that we, as professionals, may not have completely thought about.
I was reading a recent article in Harvard Business Review about how predictive analytics is now being used to detect patterns in employee behavior to reduce turnover. This process is alerting managers about who these employees are so they can intervene and attempt to retain them. As a technologist, I see the benefit of doing this, but, at the same time, this makes me sad. We are relying on data to do what good leaders should be doing—having meaningful conversations with their employees and team members to better understand what their goals and aspirations are so they do not become flight risks.
So, I am circling back to the question I asked earlier: As professionals, what is our ethical and social responsibility when introducing these technologies and processes into the world? Technology has become integrated with our lives, families, work, and health. We need to start thinking about whether a new technology or process has unintended consequences for us and our families. Are we utilizing customer data appropriately? Do our customers know how their data is being analyzed and for what purposes? How vulnerable are devices that are now networked to other systems and devices? Thinking about the ethically and socially responsible thing to do will serve the technology profession in good stead and help us continue to build trust among our peers and customers.