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25 August 2015

Big Data Special: Interview with Philip Evans

Estimated reading time Time 3 to read

From big corporations to small businesses, many companies are embracing Big Data and starting to develop new strategies based on processing large collections of data. Meanwhile, this technological trend is failing to appeal to the general public, as most of its applications are invisible to the end user.

However “Big Data is already changing a great deal the way that we live”, according to Philip Evans, Senior Partner & Managing Director at Boston Consulting Group, an expert who has done consulting work on Big Data management with high-technology corporations worldwide and has also advised governments on security and digital policy.

Killer Applications of Big Data

Philip Evans discusses the main applications of Big Data that have a real impact on people’s lives, starting with Medicine: “One of the biggest applications of Big Data is mapping the human genome“, he explains. The cost of human genome mapping is getting cheaper and cheaper. And as soon as it can be done for 100 dollars it will become part of clinical practice. “This will have an enormous impact on how medicine is researched and how it is actually applied to patients”.

Consumers will see the impact of Big Data in the increasing customization of products and services, in every sector of retailing. “We will move from a world of mass production to a world of mass customization”, says Evans, who hopes that the unquestionably cost reduction brought by corporate Big Data strategies will translate into better or cheaper products.

The Big Data Revolution in Healthcare

Monitoring the individual’s health is just the beginning: “The onset of many diseases can be anticipated if you have the right symptomatic data“, says Philip Evans. The adoption of new devices to monitor the individual’s health will bring further consequences.

These connected devices will stir up medical research by constantly gathering data on physical activity, heart rate, blood pressure, sleep patterns or calorie consumption: “The data can be aggregated, it can be anonymized and then it can be the subject of new methods of research”, says Evans. He also praises Google Flu Trends, an experiment conducted by the technology giant which helped to detect flu outbreaks in just a few days, proving how useful Big Data applications can be to public health.

Big Data for Good or Evil

Aside from the benefits of Big Data, Philip Evans also focuses on the risks of this new approach to information processing: “It will concentrate the ability of organizations and governments to observe what we do —and many would say that that makes the world a worse place. So it’s a mixed story, it’s not a single message.”

Responding to the critics who consider Big Data a first world convenience, Evans states that “Big Data is infrastructure. And that is as true in poorer countries as it is in richer ones.” He reinforces that idea with a success story on how Big Data helped to reduce the average commuting time in Abidjan, the largest city in the Ivory Coast.

Privacy in the Age of Big Data

Philip Evans ends his analysis addressing people’s concerns about privacy: “Big Data raises immense issues about privacy and data control. And there is no technological solution to that problem”. He also refuses to be optimistic about a new legal framework in which privacy can be protected and yet the benefits of Big Data can still be obtained: “The honest truth is that the policy issues are not going to be resolved in the short term.”

The key technological issue, according to Evans, is that anonymization is a utopia: with enough data, anyone can be identified, even if the data is anonymized. So he warns consumers to be very cautious about how their data is used: “Naivety about how data is being used can result in personally disastrous situations.”

Interview by Francisco Domenech for Ventana al Conocimiento (Knowledge Window)

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