Posted by: crudbasher | March 22, 2013

A Data Driven Society – Part 3

(cc) Bart van de Biezen

(cc) Bart van de Biezen

May you live in interesting times. – Chinese Curse

So far these past two days I have discussed two different parts of our data driven society. In order for a decision to be based on data you have to

  1. acquire data,
  2. process it to determine trends, and
  3. take action based on certain criteria.

In part one of this post I talked about some stories lately about gather data and how it is become pervasive. In part two I talked about how there is many more data sources now and we can also extract more data from existing sources because of increased computing power and falling costs. Remember, technology is empowering to individuals. If you want to keep tabs on the movements of millions of people in a city you need a network of cameras and now computers can watch them for you. Soon they will even understand what they are seeing. Technically you can do all this with very few people.

Ok so now we understand there is a glut of data out there, who wants it and what will they do with it? The best way to go about this is to lay out some examples.

Usage Scenarios

1. Car Insurance companies are already offering to give reduced rates if you drive around with a tracker in your car for a while. It will record your driving habits and then using that data they can generate a rate. It can stream data to them via cell towers. It might even enable new types of insurance contact clauses. How about coverage that is only in effect if you aren’t speeding? If you start speeding will they notify you? Maybe the box will talk to you? “Hey buddy, you are speeding so if you wreck, you’re on your own”. lol

2. Because of Obamacare, Medical records are now being made electronic. This will probably provide some benefits but there are some serious drawbacks too. What happens when they are hacked? (and they will be) Could this information be sold like credit information is? What if Medical Insurance companies start offering lower rates if you wear monitoring equipment? They can track your movements and activity rates. They can watch how often you sleep and when. Pretty soon we will have be able to have tiny implanted nano sensors that monitor our bodies. This would be great because it could detect the onset of heart attacks or strokes, thus saving lives. So who else wants that info? Companies are already looking at our social media as a criteria for hiring. What about medical record? What else will be a condition of employment?

3. Pretty soon we will all be able to record everything we see and hear (more here). So who owns that information? If it’s in the cloud we might not have many controls. Let’s say a crime takes place in our vision. Can the police require us to turn our video streams in? When we go use an ATM, how do we stop the video stream from recording our PIN? What about intellectual property issues? We will be looking at trademarked images all the time.

4. Will we see private survellance networks? We will certainly start seeing it in private institutions such as shopping malls. Imagine a woman is walking by a store in the mall and stops to look at a dress in the front window. A camera in the window display does eye tracking and determines which dress she is looking at. It also measures changes in skin tone and respiration and thus can extrapolate her interest level. If a certain threshold is surpassed the store emails her a coupon for that dress as she is standing there. They also include a picture of her in that dress (video here). Please note all this is possible now.

So what about education?

Education could be profoundly affected by this technology too in a good way or a bad way.

The Bad Way: Schools start mounting cameras in all the classrooms. These cameras are used to monitor the students. Computers analyze when students are paying attention and flag ones that are not. Cameras in the hallway will monitor who students interact with. Cameras in the cafeteria will catalog what each student eats in order to correlate it to their test scores. There will be microphones everywhere listening to everyone. Conversations will be flagged if they contain references to school shootings. Will they also be flagged if somebody is politically incorrect, or bullies someone else, or has a negative attitude? While you don’t (yet) know what someone is thinking you can monitor everything else and thus correct unwanted behaviors. Of course who determines what is unwanted? If a kid likes guns does the state have the right to change his behavior? This goes way beyond George Orwell’s 1984.

The Good Way: Schools start mounting cameras in all the classrooms. These cameras monitor the students but just to get a sense of the mood of the class. If most of the class has a puzzled expression the teacher is notified. When taking online classes the built in camera can do the same thing. If the student is confused, the computer can suggest alternate ways of phrasing the lesson. It can also judge interest level. If a student has elevated interest, it can adjust the lesson to incorporate more of that topic. If the student is totally passive and uninterested the computer can just suggest they do the lesson later. In order to create a truly adaptive learning system you need a lot of input data, and not just what answers the student provides.

Now the nightmare…

One of the things that struck me about privacy issues is people get very unhappy when they think a private organization is collecting information on them but seem ok with the government doing it. Obviously that isn’t true for everyone but it is my sense of the matter. So what can the government do with all this information?

1. Health Care: the government is the biggest payer of health care in the world. Those who have the gold make the rules. This means that if the government is paying for it, you aren’t really in charge. In order to keep costs down perhaps they will want access to all your medical data? Do you want a politician having access to your data? Not to mention everyone else who will have access to it via either unethical usage or hacking. Don’t forget it only takes it being hacked one time to be out in the wild.

Not only that but once the government is paying for your healthcare it has a vested interest in every part of your life. What do you eat? What time do you go to bed? How clean is your house? Do you drink alcohol? How much? Do you smoke? What kind of job do you do? Perhaps all that stuff needs monitoring too. The government could say you have to lose weight in order to get certain kinds of treatments. Potentially it could be the ultimate micromanagement.

Lastly what if the data says it’s not cost effective to take care of you anymore? It’s already happening in England.

2. Environment: A few years ago the EPA decided to classify carbon dioxide as a pollutant, and thus to regulate it. This gives the EPA almost unlimited power over your life because there isn’t a single thing you do that doesn’t involve CO2 at some point. Even breathing… So what if they demand you wear a sensor that monitors what you do? Then it assesses your “carbon footprint” and calculates taxes? Could you get charged for how much you breathe? If you have a pet will you get taxed for its carbon footprint? This is too crazy right? It’s also a potentially new source of revenue for governments. Just look around the world and the governments are all broke. They made promises they couldn’t keep and now the bill is coming due.

Of course if you support people currently in government then you are sure this won’t happen. You are probably right but governments change. The tools being put in place now can be misused very quickly and desperate people will do so.

Ray Kurzweil says that there was more change in the 20th century than any other in history. He also says we will experience that same amount of change in just the next 20 years.

We are living in revolutionary times. This is the Stormfront of change coming to education (and society).


  1. […] in A Data Driven Society I wrote quite a lot about how we are getting better and more effective surveillance tools. These […]

  2. […] A Data Driven Society – Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 […]

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