9 April 2019

Big Data and Society: Challenges and Opportunities

Data has become inextricably linked with our daily lives – from the directions we get online, to the algorithms used by social media to our healthcare, urban planning, traffic patterns, air travel and a host of other activities that we carry out each day, often without giving it much thought. The increasing amount of data we have access to and the ways in which it is used have presented both challenges and opportunities for society. 

United Nations Academic Impact and the Hasso Plattner Institute decided to take a closer look at the issues surrounding the collection and use of data and the role of data scientists in helping us navigate these challenges with Prof. Felix Naumann, chair for information systems at the Hasso Plattner Institute at the University of Potsdam in Germany.

Prof. Naumann explained that the use of data goes far beyond what we normally hear in the news which often focuses on data breaches.  He spoke about three major components of data science including: data management, the ability to move data efficiently to where it is needed, restore data and provide analysis tools where appropriate; data analytics, using data to build statistical models and visualizations; and domain knowledge, the expertise to interpret the results from data.

Prof. Naumann noted there are many positive ways to use big data, including weather prediction, forecasting natural disasters, urban and community planning, traffic management, logistics and machine efficiency, personalized healthcare, customized learning, autonomous vehicles, fraud detention, robotics, translation, smart homes or as a way to find out what makes people happy, for example HappyDB, a database of happy moments in people’s lives.

There are also downsides to having access to this much information such as privacy rights, and the unethical misuse of data to spread misinformation and manipulate public opinion.  Prof. Naumann noted that the role of data scientists will be increasingly important as data can easily be misinterpreted and causation confused with correlation if the right expertise is not brought to bear on the data available.  He also stressed that people needed to be more careful about the information they share and educate themselves about how entities use their personal data because it is hard to predict how that information will be used down the road. 

For those interested in pursuing careers in data science Prof. Naumann said that an interest in mathematics was integral to this line of work and there are many interesting career paths one can pursue as a data scientist, which will only grow as the collection and use of data continues apace.

Click here to watch Prof. Felix Naumann’s presentation at the United Nations.