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Book Review: Big Data

September 2, 2013

By Viktor Mayer-Schonberger and Kenneth Cukier

No, it’s not a business book per se, but it’s an important book for two reasons. First, while written before the Edward Snowden NSA revelations, it still shares important insights into the power of big data, or “What can you discover when you have access to all the data, not just a portion?” Second, my mother sent it to me and told me to read it.

Let’s deal with the mommy issues first. If you do not have the kind of mother who sends you sometimes dense books on obscure topics, I’m really sorry for you. My mother spent 30 years as a CPA, small business owner, writer, Licensed Financial Planner, and was called on to be an expert witness in complex financial court cases. She’s a fascinating women that is the life of nearly any party she attends. If she tells me that a book is worth reading. . .well, I naturally take her word for it. She’s now retired and spends her time on cruise ships with my step-father.

So, mom got me to read it, but I was already interested in the topic. In Staying Out Of The Clouds, I talked about the potential dangers that I saw with privacy and cloud based computing. “Big Data” provides much of the background that will help both an IT professional and novice alike understand the power of the data that is around us every day. Information that we give up freely often without thinking through the implications of that information and how long it may presist.

The authors spend a lot of time on mobile phones. They point out,

Even the most banal information may have special value. Look again at mobile phone operators: they have records of where and when the phones connect to abase stations, including at what signal strength.

This is information that you are providing to phone carriers simply by walking around with a phone that is turned on. The authors go on to explain how this information is valuable to business, but we now know that it’s deemed valuable to the government as well.

They cite examples of big data, such as Goggle predicting Flu outbreaks based on people’s search terms. Google was able to do this days before the Center for Disease Control could.

What I liked
The authors do a great job of taking some rather complex statistical and Information Technology concepts and presenting them in a straightforward and easy to understand manner. The book is at its best when they are taking the reader through a big data example. They spend a lot of time on Google. The authors have to create a new vocabulary to explain their topic. Datafication, Data Exhaust, Algorithmists, each is introduced and explained and it’s obvious what the role is. If you are new to big data, this is a great book to help you understand the concept and some of the major players. If you are a data steward, it’s useful to know how other companies are approaching the task of collecting and processing large amounts of data.

What I Didn’t
I think the authors are woefully naive about governments and big corporations. The last two chapters in the book are devoted to looking forward. The authors point out the dangers of all this information and then give their opinions that somehow society will figure it out with proper safeguards.

As some of the worlds’ biggest data holders, governments ought to release their own data publicly. Encouragingly, some are already doing this.

I don’t have a lot of faith in the government, at least the US government, doing what it “ought” to do. My experience is that governments will only do what they are “compelled” to do. We have the advantage on the authors in that we know the US government has collected details on billions of phone calls. We know that they have secret data sharing agreements with some of the largest holders of data such as Yahoo, Google and Microsoft. If those relationships hadn’t been exposed by a whistleblower, I have no doubt the government would have continued secretly collecting that data for years.

What it Means for You
As an IT guy who is interested in statistics and cloud computing, this book was valuable both as a reminder of what is possible and what dangers exist. If you have data that you collect, or that you process, “Big Data” is worth a read to understand the value of what you are holding and the implications for how that data could be used.

Three stars out of five

Edit: Earlier versions of this column misidentified the NSA leaker. His first name is Edward not Richard.

Rodney M Bliss is an author, blogger and IT Consultant. He lives in Pleasant Grove, UT with his lovely wife and thirteen children.

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