Future Big Data: What’s to Be Paranoid About?

There have been plenty of columns written in the last few months about the amazing potential of Big Data and what it holds for the future, but little has been said about the dangers that could be lurking behind this mass of information.

While stories about Big Brother being able to track your every move continually steal the headlines from a paranoid mass-media, Big Data has been quietly taking over every aspect of how our cities are run. Someday soon, Big Data could even become your city’s de facto governor.

Don’t believe me? Well perhaps you’ll believe IBM, who along with networking system specialists Cisco, is close to doing exactly that in the Brazilian city of Rio de Janeiro.

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Rio’s ‘Ops Center’ is a hub of technologies designed by the two computer giants that collates massive amounts of data from an enormous range of sources – GPS tracking, live video feeds of the city’s CCTV cameras, weather satellites, helicopters and more – which is then disseminated to some 100 control rooms that are monitored by staff from no less than 70 different city departments.

For almost two years now, IBM and Cisco have been effectively running the show in Rio, directing its traffic flow, coordinating its emergency services and controlling its utilities, all through its monitoring and manipulation of big data.

Of course it’s not just Brazil that is embracing Big Data in the day-to-day running of its cities – it’s also happening much closer to home as well. In Charleston, South Carolina, the city police have recently become the latest force (following New York, Rochester, Las Vegas, Memphis, Los Angeles and others) to adopt predictive analytics software developed by IBM (again) to help them evaluate and forecast crime patterns:

“Through predictive analytics, the CPD will be able to augment its officers’ years of experience and knowledge and provide them with a more in-depth method of looking at crime trends by centralizing previously disparate information including patrols, types of criminal offenses that are trending, time of day, day of week and even weather conditions.”

All this sounds great, but there’s one big banana peel lurking behind all that mass of Big Data – the companies that control it.

The worry is that the next step could well be automation of these systems by computers. The advantage of automation is that it would eliminate human elements such as emotion and hesitation, allowing for much more efficient management of city traffic and emergency services than there is currently. One day it could even lead to such fantastical inventions as smart cars that are wired into the big Ops Center and can drive themselves, or possibly even robo cops, modeled on robot soldiers, which are directly linked to the Police Department’s nerve center.

The only problem with this is that once things become automated, it’s very hard to go back to the way things were before – in just a few years, traffic wardens and regular police would be that much more irrelevant, essentially making cities dependent on their new technology.

Now supposing a new politician comes into power and decides he wants to change the way the city is run. For example, he may want to impose new speed limits in the city, or he might decide to introduce new operational procedures for law enforcement. What’s he going to do if IBM or whichever company has a foothold in his city turns around and says that “simply isn’t possible”, or “can’t be done for another twelve months”?

With no human traffic wardens or cops to turn to, our new politician will have little choice but to back down and let his computer bosses run the show the way they want to…