Anti-Buzz: Big Data

newface-620x461As we all know I am apt to tie my work together with your from time to time. This is one of those times.

Last week I pointed out that as dentists you enjoy freedom the complexities of facile information. You are masters of a rare skill and that expertise can’t ‘go viral,’ spread across the internet and find itself in the hands of the undeserving. I painted an optimistic picture, where your primary relationship with new technology is in discovering what benefits it can bring. Even where the most curmudgeonly among you might be slow to adopt the newest widget, there is little about new computing technology that threatens your skill or you practice. This is in contrast to professions that produce content, who are at odds with the fact that their product can so easily spill across the Internet and leak into unauthorized crevices.

The picture wasn’t honest.

Yes, your skill is safe, but your business still produces content, and the ease with which content can brushfire across the world means that you have a role to play.

As my father pointed out earlier this week, /your business produces a lot of data/. An yes, the adage “data is not information” is significant. When discussing news or film or books we understand how these mediums are affected by the new ease of storing, transmitting and duplicating data, but what is talked about less often is the impact this has on the more “mundane” matters that your business tracks.

newface-620x461First and foremost is privacy. While your dental records are not a particularly attractive target for a thief, the fact is that in decades past your patient’s privacy was secure in a file cabinet, and now they rest on a platform, ostensibly only a few moments and a security breach away from being whisked away and scattered by the wind. While in practice these records are just as secure as they ever were, the ramifications of theft, should it occur, are more severe. This, of course, has ethical and legal implications of which I’m sure you’re aware.

Less obvious is that as we store more and more data, and save more and more details, and time-stamp everything, and … well the data becomes noisier and, ironically, less useful in its raw form. Data is not information, and magicking knowledge out of data is yet another professional skill that is hard to fake. (This is where I come in). Big data somewhat self-anonymizes. The more details we track, the more complex knowledge you might engineer, but everything becomes harder.

Right now your data will probably just continue to stay where it is. You have an interest in protecting your patient’s privacy, after all. You can, (and should), use services available to you mine any useful information out of your records now, but soon enough the whirlwind of the Internet will want to sweep up your records and chew on them for its own purposes. Your records, and your colleagues records are more valuable in aggregate. The privacy of your patient’s will one day be at odds with the public good of medical research, or with the financial benefits of statistical analysis and market research.

The increasing ease of data storage makes it cost less and less to track every detail. This trend is not only at odds with privacy, but with pragmatism as well. We risk polluting our data with too many details. We risk incompatible analysis by overextension. Do I only want your data or do I want everyone’s data? I can’t work with everyone’s data unless they track the exact same details – and I know they aren’t. In some ways the situation suffers from the same thing the entertainment industry does: a vast store of data running free, but with no means to control it.

Your day-to-day might not change soon. You can continue to treat your data as just a fancy file cabinet and your business will be fine. But policy decisions about the nature and use of your data will be made eventually, and you can either be a part of the conversation or you can remain on the outside. In a manner of speaking, you are content producers, and the infinity of the Internet is going to break down your door eventually.


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