How is Big Data — the information generated from Google searches, GPS, online shopping and more — changing our lives? Kara Miller asked a panel of experts about the benefits and downsides of the international information database.

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You may have heard of the term Big Data. Perhaps you’ve even heard that the stream of information generated by our Internet searches, mobile phones, credit cards, and GPS devices is changing our lives. But how?

Big Data's Helping Hand

In a single day, we process more information than the average person in the 1500s did in a lifetime. But we don't just process massive amounts of data, we also generate it - with our phones, internet searches, even with our cars.   Google Maps, for example, now offers traffic information which is gathered, in part, from the cell phones in our pockets. If you're stuck in traffic and your Android phone is enabled, companies like Google can determine how congested the traffic is by tracking how quickly you're moving along the road. In some ways, it might concern people to think that your location is so easily knowable. But it's that same data that helps you when you're lost and want GPS: you rely on your phone or your GPS device knowing where you are. With big data, that's a recurring dilemma: privacy versus convenience.

The question of who should have data about the calls you make and the emails you write has been quite contentious recently, particularly in the case of Edward Snowden, the contractor who worked for the NSA and has said that the government has the ability to access extensive information about phone calls and emails. Interestingly, when responding to questions about the program,  President Obama maintained that, while the government is not listening to the content of your emails or phone calls, it is monitoring your meta-data - or, essentially, data about data. Watch the President Obama's statement on the Prism program and the government's collection of meta-data below, at 11:35 minutes in.

What is meta-data? Let's say you buy a book on Amazon. The purchase itself is a piece of data, but all the information about that purchase (Where did you buy the book? When?) is just as invaluable to retailers. The uses of big data are endless - from government, to business, to health care. Yet, according to Rick Smolan, author of the book "The Human Face of Big Data," individuals have not been a part of the conversation. "It feels like it's mostly companies and governments that are thinking about big data, not individuals," he says. "I think we should have a say over who owns our data, what they do with it, who profits from it." 

If you enjoy Innovation Hub and other public radio programming, consider contributing to WGBH 89.7. Pitch in before the end of our fiscal year on June 30th you could take home a copy of Rick Smolan's fascinating book, The Human Face of Big Data. Check out a preview of the book below, and thank you for your support.

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