Writing for Postmedia papers, MLI Managing Director Brian Lee Crowley explains why "big data" is reshaping everything from how public health officials clamp down on flu outbreaks to the way companies market their products to consumers.

However, he argues, this means that Canadians need to ensure the flow of data remains free from burdensome regulatory regimes.

"The data-driven economy is evolving unpredictably and at lightning speed", Crowley writes. "The law should limit itself to protecting us from real and demonstrable harms".

The Ottawa Citizen, the Calgary Herald, the Montreal Gazette, the Vancouver Sun, the Vancouver Province, the Regina Leader-Post, the Saskatoon Star Phoenix and the Edmonton Journal all ran an edited version of this column.

Brian Lee Crowley, July 4, 2014

Big Data is the next Big Thing.

More information is being collected by more people about more things than ever before. Combine that data with easily available and cheap computing power and you revolutionise our economy and society.

The best example I’ve seen of the power of Big Data comes from the 2009 H1N1 flu virus. The US Centre for Disease Control (CDC) was trying to measure the disease’s spread by asking doctors to report flu symptoms in their patients. Unfortunately it took two weeks for the data to reach the CDC. When a disease is spreading fast and you need to respond today, two week old data is useless.

Internet search engine Google found a different way to get the information instantaneously. Instead of asking experts to gather and submit data, Google looked at how many people were searching the Internet for information about flu symptoms. As Google’s website notes, “We have found a close relationship between how many people search for flu-related topics and how many people actually have flu symptoms. Of course, not every person who searches for ‘flu’ is actually sick, but a pattern emerges when all the flu-related search queries are added together.”

In other words, a faster but highly accurate system of pinpointing the disease’s spread was made possible by a huge number of data points (queries about flu) and the computing power that was able to correlate that data with location and other relevant information.

Increasingly vast amounts of data are being collected by people who do not know what value might be wrung from it. Canadian gold miner Goldcorp Inc. famously put on-line huge amounts of geological data about its mining sites and asked people to compete for prizes by interpreting what this vast data was telling them about where to look for gold. The results were spectacular.

Big data is also transforming how we drive. Listening to somebody in a helicopter hopping between a few traffic hotspots is passé. Increasingly mobile phones equipped with GPS are able to generate real time pictures of traffic density and flow, with the information about the overall pattern (and faster alternative routes) being fed back to the individual phones that supplied the data in the first place.

Big data generated by things like credit card purchases and web searches for products are able to tailor marketing pitches to individual consumers based on purchases they’ve already made. But beyond that it is increasingly possible to create virtual markets and economies in which new ideas and products can be tested to see what their chances of success are in the real world, lowering costs and reducing needless advertising and promotions.

In other words, big data is going to be a major driver of economic growth. According to one estimate, there will be 4.4 million big data jobs worldwide by 2015 and McKinsey, a global consultancy, says big-data driven companies are markedly more profitable than their Luddite peers.

But for us to get the benefits of big data we have to keep our legal and regulatory regime supple, balancing competing values like privacy, free expression, competition, and security, as a paper for my institute  argued recently.  For instance, countries whose privacy laws allow the collection and analysis of data that cause no demonstrable harm to the people who created the data (think internet search terms, traffic and weather patterns, even some health data) won’t just enjoy more economic opportunity. They’ll also learn invaluable information about themselves.

If Canada’s ridiculously unbalanced and burdensome new anti-spam regime is a harbinger of our future regulatory approach to data exchange issues, however, Canada can expect a mere fraction of the opportunity and the insights big data promises. The data-driven economy is evolving unpredictably and at lightning speed. The law should limit itself to protecting us from real and demonstrable harms. Otherwise, let that data flow.

Brian Lee Crowley (twitter.com/brianleecrowley) is the Managing Director of the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, an independent non-partisan public policy think tank in Ottawa: www.macdonaldlaurier.ca.


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