Data tsunami – firms need to weigh risks and rewards, Gartner analyst says (videos)

22 Nov 2013

Stephen Prentice, VP, Gartner Research and Gartner fellow, delivers his keynote address at the Irish Data Forum in Dublin. Photo by Conor McCabe Photography

Organisations intent on gathering big data need to weigh up the risks, rewards and ethical implications, Gartner fellow and research VP Stephen Prentice told this morning’s Irish Data Forum in Dublin.

“We live in a world that has changed dramatically – the forces of social, data and mobile computing have changed the landscape for all us,” Prentice said. “Organisations need to be conscious of the opportunities and threats from the data that is feeding them.”

Prentice said we now live in a world where there are more mobile phones than toothbrushes. Conversely, he said entrepreneurs can harness Bluetooth-enabled toothbrushes to gather data to be sold to inform governments where best to deploy dental resources for society.

“Whether we like it or not, we live, work and play in a digital world. Digital is not just in our personal lives but our business lives, too.”

Prentice cited a quote by Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt: “We now create a as much information every two days as we did from the dawn of civilisation up to 2003.”

Prentice added: “If you think it is slowing down then you ain’t seen nothing yet.

“Think of the orders of magnitude of the role that sensors are going to play. How many devices are connected to the internet today? Sixteen billion? It’s probably going to go up to 40bn to 50bn, and some estimates are 1trn devices connected by the end of the decade.

“We are on the verge of going from wearable devices to embedded devices like dermatological tattoos. My favourite is a device for plants that will tweet you when they need water. A device in Brazil has been created that tweets from nappies when they are wet. Everything is becoming connected and capable of producing data.

“GE is putting sensors into jet engines that will allow engineers to understand what is happening mid-flight. Cows in fields now have GPS sensors and produce lots of data.”

Business opportunities

Prentice said that if every digital device produces data, it means vast opportunities for businesses.

“But every opportunity comes with a dark side,” he said, referring to the book The Panopticon Writings by Jeremy Bentham that envisages a world where people are observed 24×7 but never know when they are being observed and are thus being forced to reform.

“Today we have done the job for him – everything you do is being observed. For organisations the old style default of privacy is gone forever. Twenty years ago, Sun Microsystems CEO ScottMcNealy came out with the immortal line ‘privacy is dead.'”

Prentice pointed to how firms are collecting data about shoppers in shopping centres by offering free Wi-Fi, discerning a lot about people in terms of age and income based on what shops they enter.

Technology dogfight

He also pointed to the increased use of drones, not just by the military, but by police forces to spy on crowds and by civil rights organisations to spy on the police.

“A dogfight of sorts is going on in the air between technologists.”

He also pointed out how civil engineering firms are using drones to safely survey motorways to keep people out of harm’s way.

He said the world we are in, where individuals are simply ticking ‘Accept’ on Apple contracts without reading the 52 pages of legal jargon, creates an ‘opt in’ world where individuals are surrendering their data to private organisations.

“We now have a situation where individuals and businesses are making compromises. Technology is getting so damn smart. We have thinking machines that are making decisions every day of the week.

“If I drive a Mercedes-Benz it has things like collision avoidance that jams the brakes if I get too close to another vehicle and lane avoidance which keeps me in a lane if I start to get sleepy behind the wheel. Cars will park themselves for you now. The reality is we are heading in that direction rather quickly.”

Elementary, my dear Watson

Prentice cited IBM’s Watson, which is not only a machine, but happens to be a cloud service, and how doctors are beginning to use this to help make critical decisions.

“Technology is getting cheaper and cheaper, you can buy Watson as a cloud service. If machines are beginning to make all the decisions then maybe we are facing a world of endless vacations,”

Prentice said, pointing out how if intelligent machines replace people, unemployment could soar.

Pointing to the legal and regulatory implications of big data and the internet of things he said: “There are huge opportunities for businesses, but equally huge opportunities and risks. The threats are as big as the opportunities.”

He said if firms fail to weigh up the risks and opportunities, then we are heading into a world full of tension.

“If you’re not gathering data for competitive advantage are you just wasting money.”

He said it’s an educational process. “What is the reputational risk I am running, what happens if I make the wrong decision?”

Pointing to the likelihood of data breaches and leakages, he warned firms intent on gathering data to avoid entering the creepy zone and to respect people’s trust and privacy: “Just because you can does not mean you should. Welcome to the new world.”

And right now 1984 author George Orwell is turning in his grave.

Watch Stephen Prentice deliver his keynote address at the Irish Data Forum here:

Part 1:

Part 2:

More on the Irish Data Forum

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years