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Fox School welcomes prestigious guests, speakers for NSF-funded big data workshop


May 20th, 2015

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Photo of  Attendees listen to Google Chief Economist Hal Varian, one of many premier panelists at the Fox School’s Privacy in an Era of Big Data Workshop.
Attendees listen to Google Chief Economist Hal Varian, one of many premier panelists at the Fox School’s Privacy in an Era of Big Data Workshop.

Google “big data,” and the first search result returns the word, “dangerous.”

The irony of using a big data factory to discover the risks of its own data was not lost on researchers and experts attending the Privacy in an Era of Big Data workshop, funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and hosted by the Fox School of Business and Temple University’s Big Data Institute.

“Big data” is loosely defined as the collection and analysis of large data sets of complex information. As the scope of collected data increases, there is a significant need for advanced analytic techniques and the development of new methods of investigation. Temple’s Big Data Institute was established to harness the full potential of big data and enable further research on the subject with an interdisciplinary approach by bringing together seven related research centers across the university and the Fox Chase Cancer Center.

Co-founder of the Institute Dr. Paul A. Pavlou, Chief Research Officer and Associate Dean of Research, Doctoral Programs, and Strategic Initiatives, along with Dr. Sunil Wattal, Director of the Center on Web and Social Media Analytics and Associate Professor of Management Information Systems, were awarded a grant from the NSF to further their investigation into unexplored links between big data and privacy.

“This is a topic that’s on everyone’s minds, and we’re here to get some useful insight on it,” Wattal said.

The workshop, held April 22-23, was a part of a weeklong event to encourage big data research from industry, government, and academia on the future of big data and privacy. The goal of the workshop, Pavlou said, was “to create a forward-looking research agenda into the future of big data.”

A priority for attendees was establishing the balance of big data with privacy rights, in order to improve national security and further develop consumer marketing. Dr. Thomas Page, Technical Director for Core Infrastructure & Cloud Repositories at the National Security Agency, represented the government perspective on big data, with a keynote presentation.

“There’s a moral responsibility in this space. We’re doing this on behalf of the American people,” Page said.

Page called for a new focus when discussing big data. “Big Smart Data,” he said, avoids unnecessary or intrusive information from reaching analysts, and allows new public policy to be enacted that balances personal privacy and national security concerns.

Page’s keynote address raised concerns of a “zero sum game,” wherein consumers trade privacy for national security. Christina Peters, Chief Privacy Officer at IBM, noted that she believes the two are not equivalent. Citing instances of security breaches at Target and Home Depot, she indicated how a history of misuse or neglect has risked consumer information.

Hal Varian, Chief Economist at Google, discussed the trust contract held between consumers and big data collectors. He argued that big data factories have the most to lose. “Search engines have a lot more to lose than a human. When computers screw up they screw up big,” Varian said.

Google’s top search results for “how do I know” are: “if I’m pregnant,” “if I’m gay,” and “if I have AIDS,” all of which, Varian said, demonstrate Google’s desire to not only share a vast amount of information, but to also take seriously its responsibility as an online confidante.

“Search engines are the biggest privacy enhancers in the world. People won’t ask these questions to their lawyer, doctor, parents, or priest. This is the first time you can get this type of answer from a non-human,” said Varian, who also served as the featured keynote speaker at the Frederic Fox Lecture Series April 23, another event during Big Data Week.

Varian explained that the intended use of big data is to educate consumers on the difference between privacy and security. Since privacy is the restricted use of personal information, a responsibility of big data should be to protect the security of the data and manage the risks associated with personal data analytics.

A closing comment from the first day of the workshop was the idea that “big data is the new bacon,” as presented by Lael Bellamy, Chief Privacy Officer at The Weather Channel. Her support of improved data collection and consumer intelligence reinforced the notion that although big data is trending, it’s been around for a long time.

“It’s possible everyone can benefit from the Big Data revolution,” said Carnegie Mellon University professor Dr. Rahul Telang.

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