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The (Avoidable) Downside of Big Data

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At IBM, we're optimistic about the capacity for new technologies to help make cities work better. We don't tend to dwell on the potential negatives and unintended consequences. Yet, surely, there are drawbacks. Privacy is a concern. So are the views of the community where new systems are tried out. So is the fidelity of the data that's being tapped to make cities more efficient and effective.

I was reminded of this tension between aims and consequences at a panel, Information and the City, presented today by Forbes magazine at its New York City headquarters. Two of the panelists, Adam Greenfield, founder and managing partner of Urbanscale, a New York consulting firm focused on designing user-centered services for cities; and Laura Kurgan, director of the Spatial Information Design Lab at Columbia University, sounded the alarm about the rush to harvest oceans of data from monitoring the human activities and infrastructure of cities. "So much of what's being done is technology driven," said Greenfield. "We need to step back and ask if it's in the best interests of the people and society."

The third panel member, Rod Smith, vice president of new Internet technologies for IBM's Software Group, agreed, saying that smart cities projects need to be approached with great sensitivity and sophistication. "We have to make the applications much better," he said. "It's not, 'Here's the data. You figure it out.' We have to make the data work for people."

Used wisely, data mining can be a transformational tool. Here, Smith talks about emergency response authorities tapping social media to help deal with emergencies:

At the heart of the frictions highlighted today is the power struggle that has always existed in cities-pitting the ambitions of municipal leaders against the desires and interests of some of their citizenry. The conflict is best illustrated by the contrast between the approach to urban development put forth by Robert Moses, who reshaped New York City in the mid-20th century with his roads, bridges, airports, and public spaces; and Jane Jacobs, the radical of urban planning who insisted that the citizens, communally, should shape the scapes in which they live. Both pioneers are dead now, but their debate lives on.

It's top down (Moses) vs. bottom up (Jacobs) The widespread use of sensors, networks and analytics raises the stakes.

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