Big data is reshaping the world. Only time will tell whether this is good or bad for our society – a determination that will not be founded on technology, but rather on whether or not the people managing it are capable of harnessing it for the safety, security and good of a civil society.

Americans and consumers across the globe continuously disseminate all types of information. Health records, personal Internet browsing habits, financial data and myriad other personal information fill a massive pool of data that can be mined for patterns and trends to positively effect changes in society.

But, just as easily, this data is a threat to the personal information of individuals and society as a whole. The truth is, big data’s limitless potential only can be realized if people are capable of managing information, interpreting it correctly and acting wisely.

Think of it this way: a bad chef will waste the greatest foods, but a culinary expert can develop a masterpiece even without the highest grade ingredients.

Make no mistake, the power of technology is no match for the intellectual capital necessary to develop and utilize it. That must be the lens through which big data is seen.

Everyone has a stake in the success of big data. Health care providers use information to help make people healthier. Businesses use it to innovate and grow the economy. Government can ensure our communities operate efficiently, our privacy is protected and our financial information is secure.

The White House last February released an Interim Progress Report on big data, noting, “Big data technologies continue to hold enormous promise … to streamline public services, to advance health care and education and to combat fraud and complex crimes like human trafficking.”

The key word there is “promise.” Again, the benefits of big data are constrained by the proficiency of the people responsible for how it’s collected, analyzed and executed. Access to data should be limited to those who know how to use it responsibly.

So how do we ensure we get the most out of our big data? There are four elements to a comprehensive strategy.

• Recognize the potential and limitations of big data

• Specialize when it comes to big data workforce development

• Encourage collaboration between educators, employers and regulators

• Continuously innovate to ensure the potential of big data is maximized in a safe and secure way A deeper look at this prescription Recognize

Maximizing big data’s strengths starts with recognizing its limitations. This begins with understanding what information is being gathered. Is it complete? Can it be analyzed? Is it representative? And – most importantly – is it actionable?

Hal Varian, chief economist at Google, regularly discusses how queries can provide valuable information, but, in some instances, provide misleading connections. He commonly notes a correlation between U.S. auto sales and the search query, “Indian restaurants,” between 2004 and 2012. He uses this example to highlight that correlation does not always mean causation. Specialize

There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to big data. Like the engineering or medical professions, specialization is key for professionals and employers to get the most out of data. Contingent on the application of the analysis or prospective recommendations, a diverse and specialized big data workforce is critical to ensuring that organizations can make the best use of data.

More organizations have departmental level analysts/data analysts, however, some dedicate a single IT department to the entire organization’s data analyses. This includes security, micro-targeting, marketing, finance and other disciplines, depending on the organization. Each organization has to choose the best approach for its own success. Collaborate

This is the most critical component of the effort to capitalize on big data’s potential. Educators [can play a key role here] by being connected to and collaborating with employers, so that the intended utilization of big data can be calibrated and synchronized with workforce preparation programs.

This is particularly exciting because new careers in big data analysis have been created and are evolving constantly. We’re talking about a technical skill that used to be off-limits to a lot of people, but now is an opportunity for them to learn new roles or make their current roles more efficient.

Even more promising is the fact that big data education is not just for people looking for a degree. It’s also accessible to those who want to gain certification on top of a degree, to be more productive, employable and successful from both a career path and financial perspective.

A combination of a traditional bachelor’s, master’s or doctoral degree alongside certificate programs can provide the depth and diversity of instruction necessary to maintain a cutting-edge program that ensures information security and organizational success.

For example, University of Phoenix is developing a series of certificate programs that emphasize Oracle and SAS systems. The programs include: an advanced business analytics certificate, a database administration certificate and graduate certificates in business analytics. The goal of these programs is to deliver tailored educational programs that deliver real-world and real-time professional development opportunities.

Continuously Innovate

According to IBM, people create 2.5 quintillion bytes of data every day, and 90 percent of the world’s data has been created in the last two years alone. While this is a massive increase, it’s just the foundation of what is likely to be an upsurge of diverse information. From raw data to various subsets, the amount of information available will exponentially increase.

Continuous innovation must become the norm for each facet of the information technology industry, not just to manage the volume, but to maintain its security. One solution is for organizations to divide their focus into management of existing data and continuous identification of better ways of using it.

Sortchanging one side of the equation puts entities at a competitive disadvantage now and in the future. This is another opportunity to create strong ties between industry, education and big data innovators. Lessons for the Future of Big Data

As much as we’ve learned about big data in recent years, there still is much more to uncover. It is a journey without an endpoint, and one that America must lead. Our security, communities, economy and standard of living are at stake. If our leaders in government, industry and education collaborate, we can harness big data to revolutionize our lives for the better. But if we don’t, great potential and promise will be wasted.

(About the author: Joe Lodewyck is dean of assessment at the University of Phoenix College of Information Systems and Technology.)

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