Big data affects hiring, privacy

The emerging concept of big data has been largely unregulated to date, giving rise to concerns about privacy and potential legislation.

Big Data word graphic

Big data is the big cheese right now among technologists, and the recent emergence of it as a high-profile concept may prompt agencies to reconsider their staffing priorities.

Teresa Carlson, vice president of Amazon Web Services’ Worldwide Public Sector, said the federal government should start hiring employees with big-data expertise and train existing employees who want to learn more while identifying the best processes for navigating the big-data movement.

“Data scientists are the new cool,” Carlson said, speaking at an executive briefing sponsored by FCW and TechAmerica on Dec. 12. “What the government should be thinking about in agencies is, how do we open it up, how do we provide opportunities for employees?”

However, as companies and federal agencies begin to use new technologies to take advantage of big data, questions about privacy inevitably arise.

“We must take privacy very seriously,” said Robert Ames, senior vice president of information and communications technologies at In-Q-Tel. “The reality is there is very little regulation on this.”

Ames said legislation on big data could come as early as next spring and said, “I think it is time to start the discussion about policy and regulation about big data, but it is too early to get too prescriptive about it because it is so squishy and evolving.”

Big data is a relatively new term for the process of collecting and storing large amounts of data. Ames cited several scenarios in which big data is being used to good effect. For instance, it is helping seismologists better predict earthquakes, helping meteorologists improve forecasts of weather events such as Hurricane Sandy and even helping people connect with one another online.

But Ames said the emergence of big-data technologies also allows companies to unlock context-based information about individuals, especially the hundreds of millions of people who use mobile devices.

Companies that are so inclined can “glean a lot of information about us — our patterns, schedules, who we’re meeting,” Ames said. They can then sell that information almost any way they want because “advertising technology is governed by gentleman’s agreements” that lack oversight.

“Do I want Google to know where I’m going all the time?” Ames asked. “We have to drive a fine line of balance between getting fingers into that stuff and destroying it.”

Generational attitudes will likely play a key role in any policies governing big data, said David Robinson, vice president and chief innovation officer at SAP Public Services. Members of older generations cringe at the thought of companies gathering and selling information about them, he said, but young people are not as bothered by it. Those views must be incorporated into future policies.

Big-data policies won’t happen overnight, he added, because technology innovation occurs more quickly than policy innovation does. But that doesn’t mean officials should not push to establish policies that direct how big-data technologies will be used in the near future.

“It’s important to have those policies in place,” Robinson said.

Policy-makers should keep in mind that big data will be around for a long time and plan accordingly, said Tim Paydos, director of IBM’s Worldwide Government Information Agenda Team.

He likened big data to e-commerce in the 2000s: By the middle of the decade, “every successful organization out there was operating under the principles of e-business.”

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