Copyright – Les Echos / Worldcrunch – February 10 2015 – By Catherine Sabbah
Soon we’ll all be living in cities, immersed in a flow of information coming from multiple sources. More and more governments are making official data public in order to improve and clarify their policies and operational decisions.
There’s no doubt about it: Tomorrow we’ll all be living in cities. It has been estimated that by 2050, two-thirds of the world population will settle in already densely constructed and populated urban areas. But more importantly, we’ll be living in a continuous feed of data. Over the past 20 years, we have witnessed an ever-growing proliferation of data gathered from a large number of sources — social media platforms, mobile phones, geolocation devices and ubiquitous sensors (temperature, pollution, noise, etc). It’s what we’ve come to call Big Data, for lack of a better term. Society is getting increasingly “monitored,” not to say scrutinized. This phenomenon, which is growing exponentially in developed and emerging countries alike, is almost certain to continue to accelerate. In a recent study, IT leader Cisco Systems predicted that by 2017, for every human on Earth there will be three connected devices. Producing a constantly updated flow of information feeding powerful computers. According to many researchers, this astonishing amount of data, which can be more efficiently filtered through all the time, is bound to change our lives. The question is: to what end?
Once put in order, analyzed and processed, these various gold mines of data about each individual and their behavior, will be cross-referenced in ways that, for the most part, are still to be invented. Using predictive analytics is nothing new. American clothing retailer Walmart started looking at weather forecasts to manage its stocks 10 years ago, staying on top of snowstorms or heat waves. Before that, companies would rely solely on the intuition of this or that visionary to try to anticipate needs and trends.
Today, algorithms predict the future — analyzing current shopping patterns, and comparing them with their records of previous sales. Big Data’s influence is growing in nearly every area of business.
Every mobile phone owner has already experienced (or endured) targeted advertising after buying a digital book or a plane ticket. It’s as if Netflix and Amazon knew what their customers liked in advance, offering shoppers products they’d be likely to buy before even knowing they even existed. You just have to connect to the Wi-Fi network of any shopping center to get special offers from the shops you usually go to, without having asked for them.
Retail is by no means the only sector that could benefit from these new opportunities. In the insurance industry, Big Data could allow companies to better analyze risks and adapt their offers (and rates) to each specific case. Upon selling an auto insurance policy, for example, a company could investigate a person’s data, collected from their smart vehicles, and determine the driving habits of each and every individual. Same goes for flood insurance, with the possibility of checking constantly updated flood maps. Banking is also very fond of having such mountains of information at their fingertips, though the 2008 crisis showed that mathematics could not prevent erratic behavior driven by greed.
But the real revolution could be somewhere else: Big Data analysis could prove useful in non-profit contexts. Without necessarily being aware of it, state agencies, tax authorities, social security services, land management services, pension funds and even unemployment offices have untapped treasures at their disposal. “Governments are wondering whether publishing these data sets openly would help them reduce their monolithic organizational and operational structures and therefore better direct their services,” says Steve Koonin, director of New York University’s Center for Urban Science and Progress.
New York City has opened more than 1,300 data sets to the public, to increase its governance transparency. It makes available endless tables of data that compile everything from restaurant health inspections to car accidents, driving license records, grade-schoolers’ math test results, building permits, and even the city’s tax revenue. It’s available to anyone who may be interested. Similarly, the city of Paris has an Open Data website that contains an enormous amount of scattered bits of information — and no one knows just what to do with it. Whoever manages to cross-reference the data will get a significant head start when it comes to the studying how societal behavior evolves.
This should encourage public services, which usually function separately, to communicate and exchange information to improve social, health, transportation and education policy. For instance, by mixing data about evictions, property taxes, complaints about squatters and incident reporting records, New York has increased by 40% the evacuation of buildings deemed dangerous for the occupants.
In a study on the worldwide impact of Big Data on both companies and public services, the McKinsey Global Institute has estimated that these new systems could generate more than $3 trillion — the equivalent of 3.4% of the world’s collective GDP. But the study doesn’t elaborate on the number of jobs that this new ecosystem could create — or more likely, destroy in its first phase.