What is Data?

Broadly speaking, data is any piece of information that can be used for some purpose, such as statistical analyses. Typically, data is collected to answer some sort of question that one is trying to find the answer to. This is the data that most of us are familiar with, such as numbers or demographics.

With the rise of technology and the creation of an interconnected, global society, data has taken on a new meaning. As data is any piece of information, it may be a piece of text, a picture, a sound, a video, or more. We now speak of “big data” due to the vast amount of data that is available to analysts. In the past two years alone, more data has been created than in the history of human existence, and the amount of data created will only continue to grow. Despite this, only 0.5% of all data is ever analyzed, which means that there remains great potential for further analyses.

Notably, most technology users whose data is analyzed may not be aware of how much of their data is used for analysis. In one day alone, Google analyzes the clicks, links, and content on 1.5 trillion page views. Do you usually think that you are giving away your data when you make a Google search? Though data can consist of sensitive information, such as personal or transaction data, it can also consist of web and sensor data. The latter two represent any data that a user may generate on the web, including Google clicks or website tracking, while sensor data represents data that comes from the Internet of Things, or smart devices such as your Apple Watch or Alexa.

Nowadays, big data is used for analyses by companies representing nearly all fields, including government, education, manufacturing, healthcare, banking, and retail. While these organizations stand to benefit greatly from big data analyses, improving practices and gaining more information about their services, ethical questions need to be posed as the data realm hinges on the cusp of future growth and discovery.

Among other things, questions should be posed on the right an internet user has to privacy, what constitutes as consent to data collection (Is checking “I Accept” to the Terms and Conditions enough?), what data can and should be collected by companies, and more. Clear answers to these questions do not yet exist, yet our hope is that this website prods you to think more about these issues and your own personal contribution to “big data” so that you may be a more informed internet user.

For more on ethical issues, feel free to check out our course website, which links to topics and readings that you may be interested in.