The Good, The Bad and The Ugly: Big Data in Life and the Workplace

Has technology, or the people who use it, gone too far in data collection and analysis? This seems like a bit of a loaded question as we are yet to reach a point in human history where, like in movies, we have become a dystopian caricature of ourselves: governments do not inject tiny microchips into our brain to monitor everything we do, and there are no psychics who have premonitions about a murder we will commit. However, that is not to say it is not possible. Maybe the premonitions aren’t, but government monitoring is – the case of the NSA in the United States being a particularly prominent instance – and it all revolves around data collection.

In recent years there has been a surge in various forms of data collection. Whether it’s sharing the route and time of your 5km run on social media, or WiFi hotspots knowing that you have connected to their service, this data matters to someone. Across the world companies are looking for ways to become more financially efficient. Insurers have begun shrinking the premiums of individuals who prove they live a healthy and safe lifestyle by submitting data on aspects of their life, such as heart monitoring or black boxes in their cars. Companies in various industries track their workforce, making sure that each member is working to a standard deemed sufficient for meeting targets.

In many ways this can viewed as a good thing. For the insurance industry, those who pose less of a risk are rewarded for their efforts in proving so, leaving those more likely to receive pay-outs to foot the majority of the bill, and for those monitoring their workforce efficiency, boards of directors can down- or up-size dependent on the data they gather. Granted that for some of the workers this may mean redundancy, but in situations where a company cannot afford to keep paying wages this becomes the lesser of two evils.

But at what point does the level of data collection become too invasive? And which is the root cause for this invasion; the advancement of the technology, or those who use it to gain greater insight?

On the technological side, great leaps have been made in ways to monitor people, their behaviours, and their lifestyles. The following comes from Fujitsu’s press release on 11th May 2015:

‘Fujitsu today announced that it has developed FUJITSU IoT Solution UBIQUITOUSWARE, an Internet-of-Things package that senses the status of people and things and their surrounding environments and analyzes the data to quickly provide valuable, actionable data tailored to a customer’s business.

‘The package consists of UBIQUITOUSWARE core modules that, in combination with sensors, microcontrollers and wireless communication function to analyze sensing data. These core modules work in tandem with middleware that uses sensors to learn and analyze data in the cloud. Sensing data is analyzed using the Human-Centric Engine, Fujitsu’s proprietary algorithms, which convert data into information that customers can put to use quickly, such as fall-detection or body-posture detection.’

This is just one instance where anyone can purchase a package of hardware and software that, when combined, offer an in-depth analysis of how well a particular member of a team is functioning on a day-to-day basis.

There are many projects and companies looking to help improve business dynamics through specialised monitoring, from Humabio (a project to develop a multimodal biometrics system to improve security and safety in sensitive environments) to Sociometric Solutions (communication analysers of data from social sensing technology stemming from research at MIT). All relate to how we behave physically and emotionally in our places of work.

Do we take regular breaks from our workstations? Has our heart rate increased since taking on new roles within the company? Is our posture damaging our health? All these questions can be answered, and therefore addressed in the necessary fashion. Surely it is of great benefit to a company when they can address a budding issue before it becomes a fully-fledged problem – and not only of benefit to the company, but to the employee where, for example, they are advised to adjust the position of their chair to reduce the possibility of spinal damage in the long-term.

Given the positives of such data collection, at what level does it become too invasive on the work and private lives of employees, and a hindrance to the company analysing its workforce? In my opinion the technology itself is not the problem as it can be the reason for issues being found, reported on, and finally solved. The human interaction is where I find issue with data collection, and I am not alone. Bernard Marr, a best-selling business author, recently aired his doubts about the subject in an article for Forbes entitled The Quantified Workplace: Big Data or Big Brother, the conclusion of which states:

This kind of analysis can be used to identify the most successful recruitment channels or key employees that might be at risk of leaving, but my fear is that many companies will spend too much time crunching all the things they can so easily collect data on, including how much time we sat on our office chair or how many people we have interacted with, rather than the more meaningful qualitative measures of what we did when we sat on the chair and the quality of our interactions with others.

For more on data ethics and the debate that should be happening on the subject, see this article, Who Owns Our Quantified Lives, by Tristan Palmer, and join the conversation.

On the same day that Marr’s article was released Ars Technica published an article that compounded his doubts about the human element of such big data usage. The article, found here and expanded upon by The Guardian here, was based on a lawsuit filed against Intermex, a money transfer company, by an ex-employee after her employment was terminated for removing a management and tracking app from her phone. On the face of it the app itself, Xora, seems fairly harmless. A company can track offsite workers in their daily movements, gathering data on mileage and routes taken for those who travel, and offering a clock-in/clock-out service so those monitoring know when movements are on company time. However, it is alleged in the lawsuit that the GPS systems involved would not be turned off, so management were able to track their employees in their personal time – a practice that was admitted to by the terminated employee’s manager. Myrna Arias, the plaintiff, ‘expressed that she had no problem with the app’s GPS function during work hours, but she objected to the monitoring of her location during non-work hours and complained to Stubits [her manager] that this was an invasion of her privacy.’ There is a clear line here: data collection on certain aspects of the workforce should be kept within working hours; it’s called a ‘private life’ for a reason.

Whether you are an employee, a manager, or a director within any company most will agree that particular aspects of life should not be monitored by your parent company; your private life outside of work being the most prominent. For anyone working in any industry that relies on, or even uses to any extent, data about human beings, then data ethics should be at the forefront of your thinking. We are all human, we make mistakes, and we should make a collective decision on how far we should push the boundaries – not how far we can as it has already been proved that we can collect data on just about anything. The above lawsuit is an isolated case within the increasingly expansive world of data analysis, but as the industry grows the current laws regarding such practice will have to adapt. It will always come down to the simple question ‘Am I OK with having this particular part of my life analysed?’ If the answer is ‘no’, then make it known. We have a duty to keep data collection non-invasive, but useful and, above all else, humanely ethical.