The Importance of Transparency in Big Data

January 30, 2018

The world of location data is, for the most part, a fairly insular one. I may be able to chatter about the intricacies of smart contracts and proof-of-location with my co-workers, but I certainly don’t begrudge my friends for hurriedly changing the subject when I start to talk shop. Even as a true believer in our data-driven future, I will admit that the topic can be pretty dry until you’ve done a bit of reading. Most people don’t have time for that kind of homework — especially if they aren’t getting paid to write blog posts about it. For the majority of people, the location data industry doesn’t show up on their radar at all.

That may not be true for very much longer. As often mentioned on this blog, data analytics (of which location data is a major facet) is projected to become a $200 billion industry by 2020. An industry of that size is difficult to ignore, and people are indeed starting to take notice of it. A recent news story about soldiers using a location-tracking fitness app on an army base has particularly put the technology in the public eye. Although the Pentagon has released a statement assuring that no confidential military movements were compromised, I would not be surprised if in the coming weeks people pay a lot more attention to location data companies.

This may seem like a problem, but it is actually the opposite. The benefits that society can gain from more sophisticated data integration are nearly limitless. It’s not just smart cars and smart toasters, either: companies and nonprofits are already starting to apply data solutions to problems like sustainability and urban development. At this key moment in the evolution of these technologies, companies should see increased public interest as a blessing. As more people join the conversation, hopefully they will realize that this data revolution will benefit everyone. With their participation, our dreams of a data-driven future might become a reality even sooner.

With increased attention, however, will also come increased scrutiny. This too should be seen as an opportunity. Location data is a very young industry and it is certainly not without its irregularities. The time to address these issues is now, in conversation with the public, and before they become more major problems. One of the biggest hurdles faced by the location data industry, and the one that I highlight in this post, is the issue of data quality and transparency.

As the industry has grown exponentially in just the last couple of years, there has been a demand by professionals for a single standardized method of verifying the validity of data. There are currently a number of companies on the market vying for this position, competing to become a sort of Standard and Poor’s of location. This is exactly the problem. If these verification methods are proprietary, changing from one company to the next, inconsistencies in data accuracy are nearly unavoidable. The solutions offered by high quality data are still invaluable, don’t get me wrong. But if the market becomes saturated with an influx of low quality data, consumers can’t be blamed if they begin to lose trust in the industry.

Data-driven solutions can be extremely effective, but only if the data they are drawing upon is of unquestionable veracity.

To those working in the industry, this is a bit of a tall order. Location technologies are getting smarter every day but they are still imperfect. There is also the possibility of human error to take into account, as well as software glitches at other stages of the process, and even the problem of GPS spoofing. Simply put, proving a person or device’s location in the real world is a bit more complicated than just punching in an address.

Earning public trust is crucial, but it will only be given if companies are able to reliably prove that their data is of the highest quality through a single, standard method of verification. One company that has taken an innovative approach to this problem is Fysical, formerly Beacons In Space. Fysical has used a blockchain — the technology that makes cryptocurrencies work —  to create a decentralized, completely transparent location data marketplace. Importantly, Fysical has announced their intention to remain “neutral in the space,” offering their tool to other location companies looking for an effective way to showcase the veracity of their data.

Fysical is not the only company hoping to emerge as the arbiter of location accuracy, but their adoption of blockchain technology — which by its nature is transparent, permanent, and highly democratic — is a promising development.

It’s possible that the world will forget about location data once the 24 hour news cycle has ended. But it is also possible that this is the beginning of a new era for the industry. It is possible that people will change their attitude towards data once they comprehend all the powerful ways it can be used to affect their lives. Hopefully key players in the industry will recognize this moment as an opportunity to examine their own limitations and issues, and make the changes necessary to earn public trust. If they do so, and if the technologies they are pushing forward are used to their best effect, then a data-driven, better future could be just around the corner.

Joseph Green

Joseph is currently a student at Emerson College, where he studies Visual Media and Communication. As Content Creator, Joseph develops engaging content via blog posts, push notifications, and ad-copy. Joseph also draws upon his research skills to help contextualize the company's place within larger technological and social trends in the industry.

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