Big data for social change

12 Apr 2019 11:00h - 12:45h

Event report


Mr Karsten Donnay (Professor, University of Konstanz) served as moderator for the session surrounding big data and introduced the topic by explaining areas in which big data is used in our daily life, including social media or fraud detection, and how we are constantly surrounded by it, perhaps unknowingly so. He then outlined the discussion, covering the panelists’ areas of expertise in data, some general questions regarding how big data can play a role in social change, and the stakeholders involved.

Ms Imai Jen-La Plante (Big Data Specialist, Berney Associés) introduced big data with the definition commonly associated with the four V’s of velocity, veracity, volume, and variety. She also emphasised the hands-on side of big data that allows companies to create platforms and value from data, which, in turn, are utilised to create artificial intelligence (AI). Extracting value from data is the more difficult part.

Mr Dan Amar (CEO and Co-Founder, Foxstone) explained his company in Switzerland that allows everyday people to invest in portions of real estate. ‘Together we can buy big things, but alone we cannot,’ he explained, saying how this opens the door to allowing smaller players to join the investing world, to democratise real estate in Switzerland. When banks are providing zero to negative yield, it can be smarter to put your money somewhere where you earn returns, all on a transparent level. Amar thought that a key area for disruption that would lead to social change lies in the financial sector. He advocated empowerment with ideas such as crowd funding for projects that help the population to participate in creating positive social change.

Mr Okan Geray (Strategic planning Advisor, Smart Dubai) spoke about six specific situations in which social change is implemented at the hands of big data. In Dubai, happiness meters have been put in place all over the city to document, relay, and then create value on how to make it the happiest city in the world. Dubai is also putting a system of ‘city concierge’ in place, a cognitive computing-based system that records answers to commonly asked questions; it constantly expands as new questions come in, utilising this data for AI capabilities. Another example is in Southern California, where air quality is measured, providing geographical indicators and potential sources for poor quality. These are among possibilities that big data creates to spur positive change on both the individual and social/collective side. The vital part is putting data in a context that creates social value.

Geray then brought up the topic of data ownership and protection by explaining the behind-the-scenes economy from searching something on Google, where in the .3 second it takes to get your results, various companies are acting to promote their own results and advertisements. Amar said that he appreciates how big data is utilised to advertise properly to him; he thinks the ‘machine is already on the road’ and that it would be very difficult to stop big players such as Google in collecting and creating value from our free data, especially when everyone is happy with their current result.

Plante agreed with the difficulty, saying that the value acquired through data comes from the algorithm that is dissecting it. Organisations such as Google and Facebook are controlling this, and they are already large.

Alternatively, Donnay advocated that individuals should reinstate control over their data and the value being created from it by opting out of services. It may be difficult, but it has happened before that an unsinkable ship has sunk. All panellists agreed that there are good and bad sides of large conglomerates owning our data. This is an issue that will be at the forefront of policy-makers when looking at regulating the digital transformation.


By Natalie Meyer