Information At Our Fingertips

E-mail Melanie Martella

Sometimes I get a reminder of just much the world has changed over the decades; and the most recent reminder came from two TV shows. I have a weakness for mystery novels and shows, and I've been working my way through the TV show Agatha Christie's Poirot, which is set in the 1920s and 1930s, while also working my way through NCIS, which debuted in 2003. One of the most startling differences between the shows is in the quantity, speed of acquisition, and general accessibility of information that is used by the characters to solve the various mysteries. Information access and retrieval is also a topic of broader discussion now that we're entering the era of Big Data.

Contrast Hercule Poirot, that dapper Belgian sleuth, as he relies on newspapers, telegrams, minimal forensic evidence, his 'little grey cells,' and the occasional phone call to identify the murderer with Special Agent Gibbs and his team of NCIS agents who rely on sophisticated forensics, smartphones, instincts, a raft of clever electronics, and access to large databases to help them to catch the culprits. Think of how access to always-on information streams already changes the way we live. Now consider that this explosion of data isn't anywhere near done yet. We're used to mobile devices interacting with fixed infrastructure, but what if the mobile device was your car? The University of Michigan's Transportation Research Institute, for instance, is carrying out a pilot project in conjunction with the U.S. Dept. of Transportation, to explore connected vehicles. (Read more at The Engineer in the article, "Connected-vehicle pilot project gets under way in the US" and make sure to watch the embedded video!)

The infrastructure to acquire and transmit data is one thing, but how to analyze and use the masses of collected data is another. If you can fight your way through the hype, Big Data has incredible promise, which is why people are so excited about it. However, the same powerful capabilities that can be used to do incredibly helpful and neat things can also be misused. I'm going to link to four articles on Big Data and its use and its potential dark side. I think these are worth your time to read. First, Omer Tene and Jules Polonetsky's article, "Privacy in the Age of Big Data" in the Stanford Law Review; Charles Duhigg's New York Times Magazine article, "How Companies Learn Your Secrets"; Alistair Croll's article "Big data is our generation's civil rights issue, and we don't know it" over at O'Reilly Radar; and David Meyer's article "We need to talk about sensors: How the internet of things could affect privacy" for ZDNet.

We know that sensors are only as useful as the data they produce. If we're not already awash in data, we definitely will be. The question now is what we do with that information.

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