The power of big data

The power to understand ourselves and our communities has taken a quantum leap with 'big data', computing power and advances in statistics and software. Politicians in the world’s most affluent democracy were the first to recognise this power.

Obama’s big data win

President Barack Obama’s success during the 2010 re-election campaign – the most expensive in history – is attributed to complex analyses of big data and social networking to change people’s voting behaviour, particularly to target non-voters and those traditionally under-represented, like women and minorities.

A team of statisticians, software engineers, and social scientists used vast commercial, social, and political databases to understand the voting choices people make and how those choices might be changed. Result – more people voted, and more voted for Obama.

The business of changing peoples’ minds

Obama’s win was made possible by high-profile technological allies like Google’s executive chairman, Eric Schmidt. Schmidt has gone on to mould some of that same team into a consultancy business called Civis Analytics to apply the same techniques elsewhere, most likely where it will pay most. Businesses competing for the market edge see huge advantages in big data and intelligent analysis – advantages they are willing to pay for handsomely.

Schmidt described his team as “people scientists” to Joshua Green (Bloomberg Business week, San Francisco Chronicle, Monday June 3, 2013). “They apply scientific techniques to how people will behave when confronted with a choice or a question”.

We are also seeing these big data strategies in New Zealand politics and business, at least by those that can afford them. This leaves me wondering though about the far greater good to which big data and its analysis could be applied.

Decision-making inertia

At international and national scales, controversies about the environment are allowed to result in decision-making inertia. Environmental challenges are apparently ‘wicked problems’. Attempts to motivate changes in government environmental policy – top-down control – doesn’t work or doesn’t work fast enough, even in small democracies like New Zealand’s.

At local, national and international scales, however, the everyday choices that people make have large and lasting consequences for our environment and the future of the planet. Bottom-up campaigns for changes in behaviour that are persuasive because they sensibly address the reasons for our social and environmental choices offer the promise of lasting solutions. Politicians and policy will follow, at least in democracies like ours.

Campaigning with big data

In New Zealand our national environmental challenges are clear. We have, for example, an introduced predator problem. What would be required to convince a groundswell of people to keep their cats indoors and kill-trap rats in their backyards? We have a water quality and quantity problem. What would motivate landowners to fence and plant the banks of their land’s streams? How does one motivate and sustain reductions in urbanite’s water use? We have a refuse problem. What would it take to persuade more of us to reduce purchasing products with excessive packaging, especially plastics?

Our planets population of seven billion people continues to grow. The primary international challenge is over-reproduction and excess (luxury) consumption – too many people, too few resources. What big data-informed campaigns might be used to reduce reproduction and resource use? People’s choices about birth control and consumption could be modified if we knew what most influenced and changed their choices.

New Zealanders have become interested in big data in recent months. We’ve been focussed on how big data might inform, and the challenge to privacy, but we haven’t considered that big data will also be used to understand and change people’s behaviour. That big data might, most importantly, be used to ensure our health and wellbeing, and the health and wellbeing of our environment is tantalisingly close.

Environment and big data BFFs

Environmental problems are social problems. Nothing gets done and environmental problems are not solved unless people are convinced a problem exists and are motivated to change their choices. Successful campaigns for a step-change in our relationship with the environment require that we understand the choices people make, the influences on those choices, and how we can increase the number making the right choice. Big data and the environment should be best friends, forever.

Would New Zealand companies like IBM analytics or Performance analytics at DataCom, with the power for big-data analysis, team with social and environmental non-profits to make a difference for future generations? We should apply big data here first where it will matter most – for people and their environment.

This post originally appeared on SciBlogs.

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