Let’s Build a Smarter Planet – Part IV

This is the fourth and final part of the transcript of a lecture I recently gave at the University of Birmingham in the UK.In Part I of this set of four posts I tried to give you a flavour of what IBM is and what it is trying to do to make our planet smarter. In Part II I looked at my role in IBM and in Part III I looked at what kind of attributes IBM looks for in its graduate entrants. In this final part I take a look at what I see as some of the challenges we face in a world of open and ubiquitous data where potentially anyone can know anything about us and what implications that has on people who design systems that allow that to happen.

So let’s begin with another apocryphal tale…ec12d-whosewatchingyou

Target is the second largest (behind Walmart) discount retail store in America. Using advanced analytics software one of Target’s data analysts identified 25 products that when purchased together indicate a women is likely to be pregnant. The value of this information was that Target could send coupons to the pregnant woman at an expensive and habit-forming period of her life.

In early 2012 a man walked into a Target store outside Minneapolis and demanded to see the manager. He was clutching coupons that had been sent to his daughter, and he was angry, according to an employee who participated in the conversation. “My daughter got this in the mail!” he said. “She’s still in high school, and you’re sending her coupons for baby clothes and cribs? Are you trying to encourage her to get pregnant?”

The manager didn’t have any idea what the man was talking about. He looked at the mailer. Sure enough, it was addressed to the man’s daughter and contained advertisements for maternity clothing, nursery furniture and pictures of smiling infants. The manager apologized and then called a few days later to apologize again.

On the phone, though, the father was somewhat abashed. “I had a talk with my daughter,” he said. “It turns out there’s been some activities in my house I haven’t been completely aware of. She’s due in August. I owe you an apology.”fd140-thisisforeveryone

Two of the greatest inventions of our time are the internet and the mobile phone. When Tim Berners-Lee appeared from beneath the semi-detached house that lifted up from the ground of the Olympic stadium during the London 2012 opening ceremony and the words “this is for everyone” flashed up around the edge of the stadium there can surely be little doubt that he had earned his place there. However as with any technology there is a downside as well as an upside. A technology that gives anyone, anywhere access to anything they choose has to be treated with great care and responsibility (as Spiderman’s uncle said, “with great power comes great responsibility”). The data analyst at Target was only trying to improve his companies profits by identifying potential new consumers of its baby products. Inadvertently however he was uncovering information that previously would have been kept very private and only known to a few people. What should companies do in balancing a persons right to privacy with a companies right to identify new customers?

There is an interesting book out at the moment called Age of Context in which the authors examine the combined effects of five technological ‘forces’ that they see as coming together to form a ‘perfect storm’ that they believe are going to change forever our world. These five forces are mobile, social media, (big) data, sensors and location aware services. As the authors state:

The more the technology knows about you, the more benefits you will receive. That can leave you with the chilling sensation that big data is watching you…

In the Internet of Things paradigm, data is gold. However, making that data available relies on a ‘contract’ between suppliers (usually large corporations) and consumers (usually members of the public). Corporations provide a free or nominally-priced service in exchange for a consumer’s personal data. This data is either sold to advertisers or used to develop further products or services useful to consumers. Third-party applications, which build off the core service, poach customers (and related customer data) from such applications. For established networks and large corporations, this can be detrimental practice because such applications eventually poach their customers. In such a scenario, large corporations need to balance their approach to open source with commercial considerations.

Companies know that there is a difficult balancing act between doing what is commercially advantageous and doing what is ethically the right. As the saying goes – a reputation takes years to be built but can be destroyed in a matter of minutes.

IBM has an organisation within it called the Academy of Technology (AoT) which has as its membership around 1000 IBM’ers from its technical community. The job of the AoT is to focus on “uncharted business and technical opportunities” that help to “facilitate IBM’s technical development” as well as “more tightly integrate the company’s business and technical strategy”. As an example of the way IBM concerns itself with issues highlighted by the story about Target one of the studies the academy looked at recently was into the ethics of big data and how it should approach problems we have mentioned here. Out of that study came a recommendation for a framework the company should follow in pursuing such activities.

This ethical framework is articulated as a series of questions that should be asked when embarking on a new or challenging business venture.

  1. What do we want to do?
  2. What does the technology allow us to do?
  3. What is legally allowable?
  4. What is ethically allowable?
  5. What does the competition do?
  6. What should we do?

As an example of this consider the insurance industry.

  • The Insurance Industry provides a service to society by enabling groups of people to pool risk and protect themselves against catastrophic loss.
  • There is a duty to ensure that claims are legitimate.
  • More information could enable groups with lower risk factors to reduce their cost basis but those in higher risk areas would need to increase theirs.
  • Taken to the extreme, individuals may no longer be able to buy insurance – e.g. using genetic information to determine medical insurance premium.

How far should we take using technology to support this extreme case? Whilst it may not be breaking any laws to raise someones insurance premium to a level where they cannot afford it, is it ethically the right thing to do?Make no mistake the challenges we face in making our planet smarter through the proper and considered use of information technology are considerable. We need to address questions such as how do we build the systems we need, where does the skilled and creative workforce come from that can do this and how do we approach problems in new and innovative ways whilst at the same time doing what is legally and ethically right.

The next part is up to you…

Thank you for your time this afternoon. I hope I have given you a little more insight into the type of company IBM is, how and why it is trying to make the planet smarter and what you might do to help if you choose to join us. You can find more information about IBM and its graduate scheme here and you can find me on Twitter and Linkedin if you’d like to continue the conversation (and I’d love it if you did).

Thank you!

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