Archive for September, 2012

The battle about Big Data

In many forums in the world one can hear the call of bugles and the rattle of drums as a new set of battles loom- battles about who owns what data and for what purpose.

According to the scholars Martin Hilbert and Priscila López writing in the February 2011 issue of Science magazine, up until the year 2000, much of the world’s data was stored in “analog” formats and on paper ( reports, books, newspapers and magazines) and film (x-rays, photo negatives, movies, TV programmes). That year marked a turning point when the world switched to storing stuff in digital form on PC and server hard disks, memory cards and the internal storage of cameras, mobile phones and camcorders. Since this shift, they say, the amount of data captured and stored has increased exponentially.With this torrent of data, or Big Data, have come battles about who holds this Big Data, for what purpose and whose benefit.
The value of data is contextual. A nurse encountering a baby with high temperature will conclude that the baby is unwell and requires care; she is using data in a rules-based way. If the number of babies being brought in with elevated temperatures suddenly increases, hospital administrators may temporarily allocate more nurses to the paediatric department. This is a tactical use of data. At the Health policy level of state or country what is of value are broad patterns in data across hospitals or across years.

Peter Drahos and John Braithwaite of the Australian National University in Canberra, warn of an emerging era of “Information Feudalism”. They say that in Europe in the Dark Ages, the period after the fall of the Roman Empire, the established patterns of order and security broke down and small landholders unable to protect themselves against the attacks of brigands and barbaric tribes offered their land and services to more powerful neigbours who they thought would protect them. Land and liberty was thus swapped for physical security. Thus was feudalism born. Feudal lords gained enormous wealth and power and the social subordination and services of the majority, the peasant serfs. The Russian novel, “The Brothers Karamazov” dramatizes the power of these feudal lords. A peasant mother is forced to watch her young son being torn apart by a pack of hunting hounds because her boy had accidentally injured the paw of the master’s favourite hound.

Drahos and Braithwaite provocatively suggest that business people who are pushing for ever tighter copyright and patent laws through the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) are the modern day equivalent of feudal lords. If in the medieval era power lay in the hands of those who controlled land, in our present era, the source of power lies in the control of information and data.  They warn against the emergence of Information Feudalism because of the transfer of knowledge assets from the intellectual commons into the hands of media conglomerates and life sciences corporations rather than individual scientist and authors. This, they argue, has the effect of raising the level of “private monopolistic power to dangerous global heights, at a time when states, which have been weakened by the forces of globalization, have less capacity to protect their citizens from the consequence of the exercise of this power”. It was the loss of Rome’s capacity to protect its cizens that provided the conditions for the emergence of feudalism.

There is an inherent clash of interests between businesses push to make profits from data and citizens need to protect their privacy and the national need for security policy makers must balance these competing interests. They can do this by ensuring that the underlying legislation on copyright and patents reflect this need for balance and that there is an adequate investment in the information and communication infrastructure. Most of all ensure that there is an incentive for sharing data for the greater good.

There are constructive ways to use Big Data available with public agencies. New York City, for example, has made 350 data sets from 40 different public agencies under its control available to the public via application programming interfaces (APIs). Citizen programmers are using their imagination and free time to create free Apps that citizens can download onto their mobile phones and tablets. The “Water-on-the-Go” App, for example, helps users find the various locations in the New York City where clean tap water is available at a token cost for thirsty citizens. This free app supported a city government initiative to encourage citizens to drink water in preference to soft drinks (a typical can of which contains 150 calories, the equivalent of 10 teaspoons of sugar) and reduce the use of plastic bottles. For examples of other imaginative apps that work off public data:


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Pirates of the modern world

On January 18th users attempting to access Wikipedia, the online encyclopaedia saw a black screen and al statement that said “Imagine a world without free knowledge”, and then announced that “for 24 hours, to raise awareness, we are blacking out Wikipedia”. Thousands of other sites joined this protest in a similar fashion.
The din of protest soon reached such a level that the sponsors of the bill were forced to withdraw it, saying that the bill would not come up for a vote “until there is wider agreement on a solution.”  From the phrasing you can be sure that this is only a tactical withdrawal and the battle will soon resume

Why this maelstrom of protest against a piece of legislation that started out declaring loftily that its goal was “To promote prosperity, creativity, entrepreneurship, and innovation”?
For an answer to this you need to only glance at the armies assembled for and against it.

The supporters of the bill include all of Hollywood (studios, actors, directors, musicians and technicians), the American music and theatrical establishment  and the largest American trade union body in America, the AFL-CIO, among others.
The opponents are the the Silicon Valley crowd- Google, Yahoo!, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, AOL, LinkedIn, and, of course, Wikipedia besides  the American Civil Liberties Union and Human Rights Watch.

Each side has framed its position in civilizational terms:  the Hollywood crowd say they are fighting “Piracy” and the Silicon Valley crowd say they are fighting for “Freedom of Expression.”

Mr Murdoch has thrown his weight behind this anti-piracy movement with his tweet- “Piracy leader is Google who streams movies free, sells advts around them”. A second tweet criticized Obama for “throwing his lot with Silicon Valley paymasters who oppose a pair of anti-piracy bills”.

I haven’t heard the word “piracy” thrown around so much since I as a thirteen year old buried my nose in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. a book populated with one-legged sailors with names like Back Dog with a  parrot on his shoulder and mysterious oil-skin-wrapped maps with X’s marked on them that could lead to treasures buried in far-off tropical islands.

It was a master-stroke when music companies, in America first and then the world, pinned the word “piracy” on all that people did without  their approval with music. What caused their ire was the appearance of the CD, the compact disk. Music companies watched in consternation as their revenues plummeted; young people were sharing copied CDs. Then the internet came along adding to the misery of the music companies.

The digital era brought on what can justifiably be called the golden age of piracy, a term that history books have hitherto reserved for the 17th century, a time when people like Blackbeard and Morgan the Pirate roamed the Caribbean, flying the skull and cross bones flag, pouncing on Spanish ships carrying gold from South America to Europe. The English authorities looked the other way until the attackers overstepped and started attacking British ships; the word “pirate” was invented to describe and prosecute them. From our vantage point of the early 21st century we would probably condemn not just the pirates but also the Spanish galleons- after all they were carrying gold and treasure that they had looted as colonialists from the South America.

We feel a similar ambivalence about the current imbroglio about media piracy.
The framers of the Stop Online Piracy bill have proposed things which will bring a gleam in the eyes of authoritarian regimes world-wide. They have, for instance, introduced the concept of a ‘‘U.S directed site” and defined it as “an Internet site or portion there of that is used to conduct business directed to residents of the United States”. So, off with the World Wide Web! Web sites will henceforth be seen to be “directed” at one or the other country and face liability in the country it faces. The original bill even required these servers to stop referring requests for infringing domains to their assigned IP addresses, which is the equivalent of telephone directory enquiry service not responding to requests about offending people’s numbers. Filtering of websites has now been introduced as a discussable topic.
The communication theorist and Harvard law professor Yochai Benkler  has educated us that the internet has three layers. The bottom  “physical” layer has the computers, and wires to carry messages, the middle “logical” layer has the computer code and  the top “content” layer has the digital images, text, music and movies. Battles about who will control what layer have going on for some time but the battles about the physical and logical layers are conducted in technical conferences and have little mass media value. The current  battle is about who will control  the most visible and glamorous layer, the content layer.

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