09/16/2014 05:09 pm ET Updated Nov 16, 2014

Big Data's Impact On Underserved, Low-Income Consumers On FTC Radar

The Federal Trade Commission is hosting a workshop this week on the growing use of big data and its impact on underserved and low-income consumers. The Commission's request for input from a wide variety of stakeholders is responsible and appropriate, given how central data is to the Internet economy, which is projected to be valued at $4.2 trillion in the next few years.

But big data's reach stretches far beyond just the Internet economy. I nodded in agreement with many others who attended last the Technology Policy Institute's Aspen Forum last month, when FTC Chairwoman Ramirez spoke of how "big data is now, or soon will become, a tool available to all sectors of the economy." Her remarks are in line with a recent McKinsey report's conclusion that "it is increasingly the case that much of modern economic activity, innovation, and growth simply couldn't take place without data."

It is precisely because big data is so essential that regulators should thoughtfully pursue policies that allow the global Internet economy to grow responsibly, while taking care not to unnecessarily restrain this growth.

To that end, the tech industry has demonstrated a willingness to work collaboratively with consumer advocates to develop guidelines on the responsible use of data. In my opinion, maintaining this delicate balance involves letting data-driven companies collect information that users freely provide, so long as these companies avoid using data in ways that harm or unfairly target certain populations or groups of consumers.

The ready availability of public and consumer data is key to society's continued ability to enjoy its benefits. Data innovation most often results from unanticipated analyses of unrelated collections of data--serendipitous uses that can lead to new services or positive insights that benefit consumers or society. Big data can be used to combat forms of discrimination. One clear example comes from the New York Police Department's meticulous demographic data from its so-called "stop and frisk" program. Analysis of the collected data confirmed anecdotal evidence the searches were racially disproportionate.

Big data is leading to improved outcomes in healthcare, education, and economics, but those benefits will only be available to those communities that leave a data footprint. So while it's important to ensure low income Americans' personal information is not being used to target them for high interest, high-risk loans, it is also important these populations don't end up on the sidelines of data-driven progress.

For example, a distinct lack of information about LGBT populations has historically made it very difficult to measure and address their health disparities. In response, New York state agencies are now leading an effort to acquire data about the LGBT community to provide them with better tailored public health services. To encourage widespread access to the positive results of big data use, regulators should avoid restricting the collection of data about underserved populations and instead seek to educate consumers about how responsibly used data tools can serve them in the future.

The FTC has an important role to play in gathering information and encouraging stakeholders like the tech industry and public interest groups to work together to craft a framework that promotes the responsible use of data tools going forward. The Commission's workshop is a good opportunity to foster consensus on big data's positive uses--and identify preventable harms--while ultimately ensuring that its benefits are available to traditionally underserved communities.