Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Exploring the Dark Side of Big Data

 A Big Data Scenario: " I have a story to tell........"


 I confess that I have a fondness for military and espionage fiction. There are many interesting story-lines that authors have exposed me to. As my profile indicates, I am an explorer even when I am reading fiction. When I become engaged in this genre, I try to work out problems presented in scenarios to the characters to not only consider different potential solutions that I would try if I was the character but also to predict the potential outcomes of each potential path. Naturally, risk assessment, performance capability and real time intelligence are all important factors to be considered. With regards to real time intelligence and similar to the game of Chess, it is important to develop an accurate profile of your opponents because in doing so, the accuracy of your predictions as to their intentions and ways of thinking increase dramatically, percentage wise. The more data that you have to work with the higher the probability that you will arrive at a complete picture of what you are dealing with.

This week I started reading a  novel offering by noted military fiction author, Mark Greaney who has taken the helm in continuing the successful series started by the late author Tom Clancy. The title of this particular work was: "True Faith and Allegiance" (G.P. Putnam & Sons, 2016). What was most intriguing was the story line which goes something like this:

"In Mark Greaney’s Tom Clancy True Faith and Allegiance, someone with inside knowledge and access to personal details of key military and government personnel has been selling that information to enemies of the United States.

Credit: www.Military

 The actual breach occurred as a result of oversight on the part of a security organization tasked by the U.S. military to put their database through security tests to make sure that it could not be breached. However, when the organization was finished, it forgot to delete the database from its servers. Overtime it was forgotten about until a disenchanted but highly intelligent predictive analyst was able to take the raw data and organize it into very precise and targeted intelligence that could be sold to the highest bidder. He was able to make alignments between this data and all other sources of data coming from everything from social media to personal e-mails and text messages from cell phones. This resulted in precise real time profiles of targets of interest."

As I read this it suddenly hit me! What this is really about is how Big Data could be used by a criminal organization to subvert democracy for their own gains. Then a flood of questions came into my mind such as:

  • Is it possible via the use of  Big Data for a gifted predictive analyst to pinpoint what I am doing at a given hour on a given day with precision? My first response was that such precise predictive personal data is not possible even with the high level of technology that we have access to. However, then I remembered how much personal information people routinely place on social media such as Facebook, Twitter and also on simple apps such as common e-mail.
  • With the advance of the Internet of Things technology (IoT), will we be contributing to the growing data on our daily activities? What about technology that takes sensor readings of our vital signs during exercise activities?
  • With the multitude of businesses online and governmental, are appropriate safeguards being taken to protect who has access to the data and for what reasons? Data breaches have happened much more frequently in the last decade than ever before. Well known department stores such as Winners have made headlines with the loss of personal customer data.
In a specific article titled "One of the biggest hacks happened last year but nobody noticed" by Zack Whittaker for Zero Day pointed out that a data base containing detailed information on 52 million people was stolen. With that information coupled to incoming data from many sources such as social media, profiling just took on a whole new meaning within the context of Big Data.
The Nature and Definition of Big Data

Lisa Arthur, Teradata Applications CMO and Forbes contributor, explains that Big Data “is a collection of data from traditional and digital sources inside and outside your company that represents a source for ongoing discovery and analysis.

 She asserts that traditional data must be included in Big Data because it is an important piece of the Big Data picture. Indeed, incorporating data from all sources is key to optimizing the insights gained with Big Data.

 Some of the first organizations to embrace Big Data were online and startup firms. Firms such as Facebook, eBay, Google and LinkedIn were built around Big Data from the very beginning. Surely, as an online worker you have felt a little "creeped out" by Google's uncanny ability to read your mind about your needs and your personal preferences before you had even publicly acknowledged them.

When we look at the characteristics of Big Data, there are three main characteristics:

Credit: Nasrin Hussain
As implied above, Big Data generates volume from the storage and processing of very large quantities of digital information that defies analysis using traditional computing technologies. With the rise of the great potential of quantum computing, these barriers will be wiped away.



A second characteristics of Big Data is velocity and as can be judged from the statistics below, this complements the power of Big Data.

Credit: Nasrin Hussain

A third characteristic is variety. With the advent of the IoT technologies, the variety of data is about to expand even more.

Credit: Nasrin Hussain

Two other characteristics that are sometimes considered are value and veracity. Summarizing these characteristics in a simple graphic might produce the following:


Therefore it is easy to say that Big Data and Predictive Analytics are the most intriguing trends in learning innovation. Naturally, business leaders who are new to the concept have questions. The answers to such questions could have a very profound effect in how their business plans for future growth with regards to global market share move forward. Such questions as:

  • What is big data and how can it impact my company?

  •  Can it be used to help us deliver what we have promised our clients in a more efficient and cost effective manner?

  • Can it help us grow as a company to meet the potential we know that it has and help us find and develop new markets in a very globally competitive economy?

The Seductive Potential of Big Data for Business and Education

With the break-neck pace of the rolling out of new technologies, we have to stop and ask what is its potential for prospering business and education. For business, David Strom(2015), a world known expert on networking and communications technology suggests that there are three main ways that Big Data can help business:

  •  Make it more predictable
  • Replicate your initial successes or trials
  • Enhance customer engagement
 It is the last item on the above list that holds Big Data's greatest promise:


 Another very alluring aspect of Big Data is the promise of increasingly positive growth in revenues for business organizations that make use of Big Data.

To add to this positive picture as suggested earlier, the growth in the number of data sources will increase as technology advances making the profiling of customers and competitors all the more precise to the point where predictions about future habits of such groups gain in accuracy making decision making more effective. As early as 2013, the seeds of what Big Data could mean for business organizations were starting to show life.


Then there is the possibility of expanding the business to capitalize on  national and global opportunities:

Credit: Nasrin Hussain and Pranjal Saikia (2014)

"So, given the positive growth picture, what is the down side of all this?"

Exploring the Dark Side of Big Data

As businesses rush to take advantage of the great potential of Big Data, there are some cautions that business is failing to recognize which could have a dramatic impact on the future health and welfare of the organization. Some of these are as follows:

  1. The Dazzle of New Technology: Business organizations want to not only protect their market share globally but also open up potentially new markets never explored before. New technologies are held up as the "holy grail" by which to achieve this end. Business leaders have a responsibility show distinctively improved ROI to stock holders that make quarterly reports glow. However, in the scramble to adopt new technologies it is important to step back and consider the possible vulnerabilities that such technologies might open up. A case in point is the "cloud" technology. Obviously, with the huge increase in data that is becoming available from multiple sources, storage needs to be effective to meet the new demand. However, not everything is as it appears to be.
 In an article titled: "The dirty dozen: 12 cloud security threats" written for InfoWorld magazine by Fahmida Rashid (Mar. 11, 2016), we are being dazzled by the technology and not taking the necessary security precautions. This is not just an organization IT problem. It is a decision maker problem because it is the decision maker who is being swayed by effective digital marketing that is being applied.

2.    Making Data Security a Priority: The obvious question that needs to be asked is whether or not business organizations and decision makers are making data security a high enough priority. As indicated earlier, the threats are real and a number of very high profile data breaches have caused dramatic drops not only in stock value but also in the confidence that clients and the public in general have in very well known business organizations.
 Bernard Marr  a best-selling business author, keynote speaker and consultant in strategy management, performance management, analytics, KPIs and big data in an article titled " Why is Big Data so dangerous?"(Sept. 14, 2016) outlines 5 key risks that Big Data presents to business organizations. Who has access, what kind of budget have business organizations allotted to data security and how the data is used are key ideas for business organizations to pay attention to. As can be noted in the following structural diagram, how secure are the numerous access points especially if the cloud is used as a storage depot?


3.    The Role of e-Learning and Education: One of the last elements you would ever expect to have an impact on Big Data is education. However, you would be surprised what education is putting at your front door. If we look deeper into how technology handles data, we would arrive at the machine language of the specific technologies. At this level, how a piece of technology will deal with data can be directed right at the very heart of the machine. Another flashy trend dealing with technology is to teach young people at a very early age how to do programming and machine language coding. At first, your response might be, "so what?". However, consider the fact that many attempts to hack the networks of business organizations are coming from very talented young people who are not only curious but also are interested in how far they can go before someone tells them that this type of activity is wrong. We are now teaching them how to access the very heart of computer language but are we doing the teaching with an emphasis on the responsibility of acting in ethical ways? In the atmosphere of social action and moral relativism perhaps we have opened a box that we should not have opened.

E-Learning and education have roles both within the learning culture of business organizations as well as formal education. These tools need to be used not just for training as in the business context but also to help employees and students develop skillsets that help them engage in the vision and mission of making the quality of life of others better. They need to understand the need how to shut the door on dangerous uses of Big Data if not for the fact that their own data is part of the mix.

As suggested by the Tom Clancey novel, some story-lines you never want to see become realities....

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Critical Thinking and the Crisis of Credibility

On numerous occasions I have raised the alarm through posts that students in educational institutions are being taught "what to think instead of how to think". As a result of this entrenched attitude within education systems, education has become less about effective, authentic learning and more about indoctrination of views held on a variety of topics that favour only one side of topics and dismiss other points of view without considering the evidential merit of these points of view. We see the fruit of this on many university campuses where even speakers holding alternative points of view are denied access to campuses or if given access, their presentations are harassed by those with opposing points of view. A case in point here in Ontario, Canada is the case of Professor Jordan Peterson, who is a University of Ontario Psychology professor who is due to speak to a sold out crowd at the University of Western Ontario in London.


 Due to the fact that Professor Peterson does not agree with the use of gender neutral pronouns in his classroom and openly criticizes the rise of political correctness on university campuses, the university is charging the student group who invited him to speak a $1200 fee to cover security which is not something they do in an equitable fashion when dealing with speakers invited to speak. Professor Peterson has made his views known on YouTube and is open to rational discussion on his views.

Credit: www.the College

As a result of this retreat away from rational thought and discussion, societies are experiencing what I would term a " crisis of credibility". A crisis of credibility occurs when foundational systems such as education systems, religious systems, law systems, and systems of labour which were the bedrock institutions originally designed to serve the people, lose the confidence of the people they were mandated to serve. The obvious question then becomes:

"What are the causes of this crisis of credibility?"

Some of the causes that can be identified, as relating to education, the family and society in general might be the following:

  • The increase in priority of asking learners how they "feel" about topics instead of educating them in the skills of thinking about topics, being able to state what position they hold on issues based upon authenticated and verifiable evidence. Learners are repeatedly exposed to a variety of social issues in our societies without being given the necessary thinking skillsets needed to form informed opinions. This happens at the earliest level of education when students have only rudimentary thinking skills but are requested to take stands on social issues. A good example is the issue of bullying. Young people are taught to use emotionally laden terms and  take specific actions but are never clearly given the root causes to the issue for them to have a complete picture.

Credit: Robert John Meehan

Without this, they learn that feelings are what you should base your decisions on and therefore your actions. Anyone who has an opposing opinion, you should not have to listen to and to protect yourself, we have a vocabulary built up to dismiss them altogether thus freeing you from being upset. Please clear on this! I am not saying that feelings are not important because they are and we all have them. I am saying that it is wrong if they take the place of reason altogether.
  • Moral relativism has been a destructive influence on our understanding of the difference between  what should be considered morally "right" behaviour and what should be considered morally "wrong" behaviour in our societies. The end result of this is societies coming to the conclusion that there is no " right" or "wrong" behaviour. A case in point on this is the declaration of cities and states to be "sanctuary cities". Simply put the rationale, based upon "feelings" is that it is o.k. for illegal immigrants to break our laws and by declaring our city or state to be a "sanctuary place", we the guardians of the rule of law are going to help them do it and we are going to feel good about ourselves for doing it. Such acts lead to a very disturbing question:

"If elected officials who were elected to uphold the rule of law in government, encourage the breaking of our laws and abrogate the processes designed to maintain stability of law enforcement and protect the constitutional rights of all citizens then how can we in good conscience hold citizens accountable for the breaking of other laws?"

Stopping a False Paradigm

One of the first steps that we need to take in education is to stop promoting a false paradigm that is relegating reasoning to a frill topic in schools. In the past, the paradigm that has allowed our civilizations to advance may have looked like this:

Important issue---->identify all sides to the issue---->examine the evidence supporting each side carefully through effective research---->take a position on the issue---->defend your position passionately through effective debate

We may have been inspired by an issue that truly moved us and consider an important issue or the events of the day required that we investigate due to a possibly negative impact on our lives. So, although "feelings" may have started us to take action, we followed a paradigm of necessary investigation based upon reason.

So, what has changed?

New Paradigm: 

Important issue----->only one side of the issue presented for acceptance-------> use of selected emotional multimedia assets are used to suggest how you should feel about the issue----> based upon your feelings, put pressure on others who do not share your viewpoint through the use of dismissive vocabulary that uses ad hominem argumentation as a tool to censor debate------> engage in forcing the point of view into enforceable laws upon all people.

The end result of this new paradigm which we even now see being played out in the current events and in social media circles is the systematic sabotage of the great gift that we all have for critical thinking.

So, how do we stop this type of paradigm from continuing to wreak havoc on the intelligence of learners?

The Systematic Re-Integration of Critical Thinking Skills

We can not as civilized societies remain civilized as long as we allow this paradigm to be constantly reinforced throughout all levels of the education systems and the curriculums that they subscribe to. As thinking individuals, we hold that the following truths should be available to all citizens with the understanding that the goal is to strive to help improve the quality of life for all people.

  • Critical thinking skillsets are not frills but as essential for our survival as civilized societies who have to deal with complex real world problems in effective ways that bring solutions that benefit all people. We have already identified what comprises such skillsets:

  • Every citizen is entitled to hold an opinion and have the right to express the opinion giving supporting evidence that can be verified. If I disagree with the opinion, I have the right and obligation by means of providing evidence that disapproves that opinion, to act responsibly.

  • When I hear an opposing opinion and am tempted to use popular dismissive vocabulary terms, I have a responsibility to clearly define those terms. I have an obligation that if others question the validity of my definition to listen to their objections and answer their challenges.

  • I have to accept the possibility that I just might be wrong if the evidence supports that I am in error even if it might hurt my feelings.

E-Learning: The Potential and the Danger

One question that may have occurred to you is:

"What does any of this have to do with e-Learning?"

One of the great advantages to e-Learning is that it is no longer dependent upon local constraints but instead has a global reach. The problem of the disassembling of a paradigm that has served civilizations well in favour of the false paradigm noted above is not just a North American problem. It is evident in the education systems of many countries on a global scale that this problem is pervasive. We see in in discussions in global politics and even as far as organized sports among countries.

The time to stop this paradigm is now so that your children and their children will enjoy a quality of life that puts the needs of others above self-entitlement but even more importantly, that the decisions they make and defend passionately, are based on the building blocks of sound reasoning. 

Together, we can overcome the great crisis of credibility that we now face. We must overcome it....