Nora Young

Conversation about data long overdue: Perspectives speaker

In today’s world of “Big Data,” there persists a disconnect between the general populace and the knowledge of what happens with data and how it is used.


Advocate staff

In today’s world of “Big Data,” there persists a disconnect between the general populace and the knowledge of what happens with data and how it is used.

CBC technology pundit, host of Spark and author Nora Young did her best to shine a light on these issues during the annual Perspectives: Canada in the World series hosted by Red Deer College on Tuesday.

She talked about how to best use this data collection — often referred to as “data exhaust” — to one’s advantage and how to best protect yourself in the world today.

Young said it’s about what kind of data world you want to live in. It is a conversation that is overdue as the world is still operating on policies and customs that pre-date the modern tech world.

“What my hope is, if we can start to talk about this stuff, we can start to think about the consensus of what we should be doing,” she said. “This is all so new. In some ways I think it took us all by surprise. In one minute you’re using your Facebook . . . then the next minute you realize there’s all this data being collected about me.”

She said 20 per cent of Canada still does not access the digital world, and that those numbers are consistent in places like Europe. Part of that comes down to a paranoia of the world out there, but part of it also comes down the mentality that much of the older generations have gone their whole lives without using things like Twitter and Facebook, why do they need to now?

“I do think in the next two-to-five years, if you’re not in those spaces there are negative consequences for not doing that,” said Young.

Then there is the other side of the coin, the technology literate who rarely bothers to read the lengthy ‘Terms of Agreement’ that often coincides with much of the technology that we use, instead just clicking ‘approve’ and moving on.

This opens people up to the unknown. In some cases they are signing away their personal information to be sold and bought by companies.

It could be as simple as a grocery store finding out you like to buy taco chips and stocking them in stores near you. But it is often far more extensive and sometimes scarier than that, especially when it comes to medical records and other private data.

One of the major trends of late is the “tagging” of individuals at events. The technology existed in 2011 to recreate the mob of people in downtown Vancouver, prior to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final using more than 200,000 photos from their accounts.

This tracking technology can be useful in helping to show you traffic patterns, but can be as intrusive enough where governments can tap into this technology, as they did in Ukraine at the start of the revolution and started charging people with crimes just for being in the area.

“What really worries me is that there may be things that there are ways the data can come together that we really didn’t intend,” said Young. “We don’t really understand the math of it all or the public policy.”

But she was adamant that we should not be afraid of technology, instead, we need to push forward with new customs and policy to not only help us navigate the new world, but to protect us as well.

“What I think is really exciting is some of the potential insights that come when you analyze all that data that it really does show us some really surprising and wonderful things about how we are living and behaving as human beings,” said Young. “When you look at much of human history, where we have had to make a lot of decisions without a lot of information and there’s a lot of guess work involved, I think the potential for it to really allow us to build smarter communities . . . that is really exciting to me.”

It was important the Perspectives series to bring in someone like Young to talk technology. She even spent the afternoon addressing about 400 RDC students on many of the same issues she talked about in the evening.

“It’s such a relevant topic, it’s something that’s exploded recently,” said Clare Westcott Smallwood, the chairwoman of the perspectives committee. “We feel like people aren’t really talking about it, and that’s what Perspectives is about it, bringing our students and bringing people from the community together and really talking about it.”

They have tabbed Canadian author and poet Margaret Atwood for next year’s installment of the series, more details will be announced shortly.

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