Do brands need a Big Data Ethicist?

6/52 - Work

6/52 - Work (Photo credit: whatmattdoes)

There is much talk about the looming gap between the opportunities being created by big data and finding workers with the right skills and expertise to fill these positions. A recent study by Gartner predicts that by 2015, 4.4 million IT jobs globally will be created to support big data opportunities within brands.

With these opportunities come challenges, not least how you use the data in a responsible way without alienating the customers you are hoping to offer better services and products to. This has led some to suggest brands need a Big Data Ethicist, charged with ensuring data is used in a responsible and ethical way.

Ways your business could be damaged by use of big data

The damage to a brand from use of big data can impact in three main ways: the brand and reputation, the relationship with customers and financial. Three simple examples of these are:

  1. Damaging the brand reputation: Target’s brand was damaged when their predictive analytics team knew about a teenage girl’s pregnancy before she could break the news to her own father. This sparked outrage about the legality of Target’s actions and many people have started questioning various companies’ marketing techniques and using their club-cards
  2. Alienating customers: TomTom, maker of  popular GPS navigation devices, was forced to apologize after news that Dutch police had used data gathered from drivers TomTom devices to set speed traps up. The scandal resulted in TomTom slashing their 2011 sales figures down by $90 million and company’s CEO issuing a statement assuring customers that it would investigate how the data they sold was being used
  3. Fines: Google was hit with a $22.5 million fine for embedding software that bypassed privacy settings of millions of Apple devices in order to collect users viewing data for their direct marketing efforts.

The role of a Big Data Ethicist

The role of a Big Data Ethicist in any firm should be to build a culture in an organisation of using big data in a way that strengthens the relationship with customers, respecting their desires for privacy but helping to deliver better products and services to them. Typically a Big Data Ethicist would be responsible for:

  • Thinking through the legal consequences and implications of the data and information your company will be creating, using and publishing
  • Build customer trust over the use of your big data activities
  • Consideration of long-term, far-reaching implications of the use of big data technologies, for example a backlash from consumers over companies’ use of their data
  • Help decisions makers plan new big data activities

How might this role fit into existing roles and processes? Are brands that are experimenting with big data considering these ethical issues?