The Promise and Challenge of Big Data
Rob Garris

Rob Garris Former Managing Director, Bellagio Study and Conference Center

November 09, 2013

The Promise and Challenge of Big Data

2013 Bellagio/PopTech Fellows
The 2013 Bellagio/PopTech Fellows

This year and next, a number of Bellagio projects will explore the importance of new capacities and emerging threats in data science for resilience, development, and human well being. Key among these events was a project on big data and community resilience, hosted jointly at the Bellagio Center this August by PopTech and The Rockefeller Foundation. Bringing together data and resilience experts from a variety of perspectives, including data visualization, data ethics, data journalism, data and marketing, data science, and climate resilience, the project was an experiment in collaboration and an exploration of the implications of new developments in data science for community resilience. Key among the insights developed during the two week workshop were the importance of recognizing the contributions of agency to community resilience.

“If individuals lose a sense of agency and control over their data, it undermines the trust between people and organizations that are essential for community resilience.”

If individuals lose a sense of agency and control over their data, it undermines the trust between people and organizations that are essential for community resilience. The group eventually focused its discussions on the development of principles for the ethical use of data to build resilience, along with a presentation by the fellows at PopTech’s annual event in Camden, Maine.

The same week that the Bellagio/PopTech fellows were working away in the Frati, a group of urban experts from public, private, and civil society organizations, working on a wide variety of future trends that will shape cities in the 21st century, also chose data as one of their areas of focus. With strong inputs from representatives of residents of informal settlements, they recognized the power of ethically-managed data to empower communities to make political demands and to manage their own lives. The ‘Transforming Cities‘ group also saw the potential for a dynamic, decentralized environmental data exchange at the city level, if both individuals and businesses trust that their privacy and proprietary interests in the data will be respected.

Early next year, other Bellagio meeting organizers from outside the Foundation will bring their projects to the Center to explore data issues that emerged within their own work. The Oxford Internet Institute will lead a meeting on Big Data for Social Change, with a focus on the emerging challenges and opportunities of working with data in the developing world. Columbia University‘s Center for International Earth Science Information Network will use a Bellagio conference to take its long-standing work on the intersection of geospatial data, environmental protection, and economic development in fragile states to a new level. And after years of working on geospatial data in Haiti, the Bellagio meeting will serve as an opportunity to expand their work with new partners in West Africa.

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