Ethics and the Data-Driven Enterprise

January 17, 2013 Paul M. Davis

“Pattern Recognition I” by Mario Klingemann via Flickr.

Despite the prodigious business value, civic innovation, and predictive insight yielded from the cascading streams of Big Data, there are critical questions regarding who has access to what information, and how actionable insight will impact the lives of the human beings beyond the dashboard.

In a new article at Information Week magazine, Eric Lundquist considers the unintended social consequences of delivering data-driven insight, such as the Journal News‘ recent publication of gun owner information in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook Elementary tragedy. Lundquist extrapolates from this individual case to examine such issues in the context of Big Data. Advocating for companies to seek out “Big Data Ethics Experts”, Lundquist details what’s at stake:

The looming issue in Big Data isn’t technology but the decisions associated with how, when and if results should be provided. Widespread access to public information, interfaces that make it easy to combine Big Data sources, and the ability to publish information to the Internet is going to yield some difficult decisions for the Big Data community.


In the enthusiasm around Big Data, there has been little discussion about what that data might uncover. Privacy issues will surface as data analytics becomes able to reveal identities by combining what was previously considered anonymous data with location and purchasing information.

Lundquist cites O’Reilly’s Alistair Croll, who wrote one of last year’s must-read essays about the social and civic implications of the Big Data revolution, “Big Data Is Our Generation’s Civil Rights Issue, and We Don’t Know It.” In it, Croll warned:

There are brilliant examples of how a quantified society can improve the way we live, love, work, and play. Big data helps detect disease outbreaks, improve how students learn, reveal political partisanship, and save hundreds of millions of dollars for commuters — to pick just four examples. These are benefits we simply can’t ignore as we try to survive on a planet bursting with people and shaken by climate and energy crises.

But governments need to balance reliance on data with checks and balances about how this reliance erodes privacy and creates civil and moral issues we haven’t thought through. It’s something that most of the electorate isn’t thinking about, and yet it affects every purchase they make.

Behind all that transactional, economic, research, social media, and mobile device data that comprises much of what we broadly call “Big Data” exist individuals, customers, users, citizens. It’s essential that organizations transitioning to become data-driven predictive enterprises bear this in mind, enacting policies and safeguards to consider and protect the privacy and civil rights of their constituents, whether they be consided customers, users, or citizens.

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