Data is the new oil. It is highly valuable, and it is everywhere, even if you're not aware of it. For example, it's there when you use social media. Sharing pictures on Facebook lets its facial recognition software peg you and your friends. Thanks to that software, now anywhere you visit that has installed cameras, your face can be identified and your actions recorded.
The big data revolution is advancing much faster than the ones before, and it carries both promises and perils for humanity.
It's there when you log into Twitter, posting one of the 230 million tweets per day, which up until last month were all archived by the Library of Congress and will be made public for research. These social media data can be used to predict your political affiliations, ethnicity, race, age, how close you are with your family and friends, your mental health, even when you are most likely to be grumpy or go to the gym. These data can also predict when you are apt to get sick and track how diseases are spreading.
In fact, tracking isn't limited to what you decide to share or public spaces anymore. Lab experiments show Comcast and other cable companies may soon be able to record and monitor movements in your house. They may also be able to read your lips and identify your visitors simply by assessing how Wi-Fi waves bounce off bodies and other objects in houses. In one study, MIT researchers used routers and sensors to monitor breathing and heart rates with 99% accuracy. Routers could soon be used for seemingly good things, like monitoring infant breathing and whether an older adult is about to take a big tumble. However, it may also enable unwanted and unparalleled levels of surveillance.
Some call the first digital pill a snitch pill, medication with a tattletale, and big brother in your belly.
Big data is there every time you pick up your smartphone, which can track your daily steps, where you go via geolocation, what time you wake up and go to bed, your punctuality, and even your overall health depending on which features you have enabled. Are you close with your mom; are you a sedentary couch potato; did you commit a murder (iPhone data was recently used in a German murder trial)? Smartphone-generated data can be used to label you---and not just you, your future and past generations too.
Smartphones are not the only "things" gathering data on you. Anything with an on and off switch can be connected to the internet and generate data. The new rule seems to be, if it can be, it will be, connected. Washing machines, coffee makers, medical appliances, cars, and even your luggage (yes, someone created a self-driving suitcase) can and are often generating data. "Smart" refrigerators can monitor your food levels and automatically create shopping lists and order food for you—while recording your alcohol consumption and whether you tend to be a healthy or junk food eater.
Even medicines can monitor behaviors. The first digital pill was just approved by the FDA last November to track whether patients take their medicines. It has a sensor that sends signals to a patient's smartphone, and others, when it encounters stomach acid. Some call it a snitch pill, medication with a tattletale, and big brother in your belly. Others see it as a major breakthrough to help patients remember to take their medications and to save payers millions of dollars.
Big data is there when you go shopping. Credit card and retail data can show whether you pay for a gym, if you are pregnant, have children, and your credit-worthiness. Uber and Lyft transactional data reveal what time you usually go to and leave work and who you regularly visit (Uber data has been used to catch cheating spouses).
Amazon now sells a bedroom camera to see your fashion choices and offer advice. It is marketing a more fashionable you, but it probably also wants the video feed showing your body measurements—they're "a newly prized currency," according to the Washington Post. They help retailers create more customized and better fitting clothes. Amazon also just partnered with Berkshire Hathaway and JPMorgan Chase, the largest bank in the United States by assets, to create an independent health-care company for their employees--raising privacy concerns as Amazon already owns so much data about us, from drones, devices, the AI of Alexa, and our viewing, eating, and other purchasing habits on Amazon Prime.
Data generation and storage can also be used to make the world better, safer and fairer.
Big data is arguably a new phenomenon; almost all the world's data (90%) were produced within the last 2 years or so. It is a result of the fusion of physical, digital, and biological technologies that together constitute the fourth industrial revolution, according to the World Economic Forum. Unlike the last three revolutions, involving the discoveries of steam power, electrical energy, and computers—this revolution is advancing much faster than the ones before and it carries both promises and perils for humanity.
Some people may want to opt out of all this tracking, reduce their digital footprint and stay "off the grid." However, it is worth noting that data generation and storage can be used for great things --- things that make the world better, safer and fairer. For example, sharing electronic health records and social media data can help scientists better track and understand diseases, develop new cures and therapies, and understand the safety and efficacy profiles of medicines and vaccines.
While full of promise, big data is not without its pitfalls. Data are often not interoperable or easily integrated. You can use your credit card practically anywhere in the world, but you cannot easily port your electronic health record to the doctor or hospital across the street, for example.
Data quality can also be poor. It is dependent on the person entering it. My electronic health record at one point said I was male, and I was pregnant at the time. No doctors or nurses seemed to notice. The problem is worse on a global level. For example, causes of death can be coded differently by country and village. Take HIV patients: they often develop secondary infections, like TB. Do you record the cause of death as TB or HIV? There isn't global consistency, and political pressure from patient groups can exert itself on death records. Often, each group wants to say they have the most deaths so they can fundraise more money.
Data can be biased. More than 80 percent of genomic data comes from Caucasians. Only 14 percent is from Asians and 3.5 percent is from African and Hispanic populations. Thus, when scientists use genomic data to develop drugs or lab tests, they may create biased products that work for only some demographics. Take type 2 diabetes blood tests; some do not work well for African Americans. One study estimates that 650,000 African Americans may have undiagnosed diabetes, because a common blood test doesn't work for them. Using biased data in medicine can be a matter of life and death. Moreover, if genomic medicine benefits only "a privileged few," the practice raises concerns about unequal access.
Large companies are selling data that originated from you and you are not sharing in the wealth.
We need to think carefully and be transparent about the values embedded in our data, data analytics (algorithms), and data applications. Numbers are never neutral. Algorithms are always embedded with subjective normative values--sometimes purposely, sometimes not. To address this problem, we need ethicists who can audit databanks and algorithms to identify embedded norms, values and biases and help ensure they are addressed or at least transparently disclosed. Additionally, we need to determine how to let people opt out of certain types of data collection and uses—and not just at the beginning of a system, but also at any point in their lifetimes. There is a right to be forgotten, which hasn't been adequately operationalized in today's data sphere.
What do you think happens to all of these data collected about us? The short answer is the public doesn't really know. A lot of it looks like what is in a medical record—i.e. height, weight, pregnancy status, age, mental health, pulse, blood pressure, and illness symptoms--- yet, it isn't protected by HIPPA, like your medical record information.
And it is being consolidated into the hands of fewer and fewer big players. Large companies are selling data that originated from you and you are not sharing in the wealth.
A possible solution is to create an app, managed by a nonprofit or public benefit corporation, through which you could download and manage all the data collected about you. For example, you could download your credit card statements with all your purchasing habits, your Uber rides showing transit patterns, medical records, electric bills, every digital record you have and would like to download--into one application. You would then have the power to license pieces or the collection of your data to users for a small fee for one year at a time. Uses and users could be monitored and audited leveraging blockchain capabilities. After the year is up, you can withdraw access.
You could be your own data landlord. We could democratize big data and empower people to better control and manage the wealth of information collected about us. Why should only the big companies like Amazon and Apple profit off the new oil? Let's create an app so we can all manage our data wealth and maybe even become data barons—an app created by the people for the people.
You are driving along the highway and see an electronic sign that reads: “3,238 traffic deaths this year.” Do you think this reminder of roadside mortality would change how you drive? According to a recent, peer-reviewed study in Science, seeing that sign would make you more likely to crash. That’s ironic, given that the sign’s creators assumed it would make you safer.
The study, led by a pair of economists at the University of Toronto and University of Minnesota, examined seven years of traffic accident data from 880 electric highway sign locations in Texas, which experienced 4,480 fatalities in 2021. For one week of each month, the Texas Department of Transportation posts the latest fatality messages on signs along select traffic corridors as part of a safety campaign. Their logic is simple: Tell people to drive with care by reminding them of the dangers on the road.
But when the researchers looked at the data, they found that the number of crashes increased by 1.52 percent within three miles of these signs when compared with the same locations during the same month in previous years when signs did not show fatality information. That impact is similar to raising the speed limit by four miles or decreasing the number of highway troopers by 10 percent.
The scientists calculated that these messages contributed to 2,600 additional crashes and 16 deaths annually. They also found a social cost, meaning the financial expense borne by society as a whole due to these crashes, of $377 million per year, in Texas alone.
The cause, they argue, is distracted driving. Much like incoming texts or phone calls, these “in-your-face” messages grab your attention and undermine your focus on the road. The signs are particularly distracting and dangerous because, in communicating that many people died doing exactly what you are doing, they cause anxiety. Supporting this hypothesis, the scientists discovered that crashes increase when the signs report higher numbers of deaths. Thus, later in the year, as that total mortality figure goes up, so do the percentage of crashes.
Boomerang effects happen when those with authority, in government or business, fail to pay attention to the science. These leaders rely on armchair psychology and gut intuitions on what should work, rather than measuring what does work.
That change over time is not simply a function of changing weather, the study’s authors observed. They also found that the increase in car crashes is greatest in more complex road segments, which require greater focus to navigate.
The overall findings represent what behavioral scientists like myself call a “boomerang effect,” meaning an intervention that produces consequences opposite to those intended. Unfortunately, these effects are all too common. Between 1998 and 2004, Congress funded the $1 billion National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign, which famously boomeranged. Using professional advertising and public relations firms, the campaign bombarded kids aged 9 to 18 with anti-drug messaging, focused on marijuana, on TV, radio, magazines, and websites. A 2008 study funded by the National Institutes of Health found that children and teens saw these ads two to three times per week. However, more exposure to this advertising increased the likelihood that youth used marijuana. Why? Surveys and interviews suggested that young people who saw the ads got the impression that many of their peers used marijuana. As a result, they became more likely to use the drug themselves.
Boomerang effects happen when those with authority, in government or business, fail to pay attention to the science. These leaders rely on armchair psychology and gut intuitions on what should work, rather than measuring what does work.
To be clear, message campaigns—whether on electronic signs or through advertisements—can have a substantial effect on behavior. Extensive research reveals that people can be influenced by “nudges,” which shape the environment to influence their behavior in a predictable manner. For example, a successful campaign to reduce car accidents involved sending smartphone notifications that helped drivers evaluate their performance after each trip. These messages informed drivers of their personal average and best performance, as measured by accelerometers and gyroscopes. The campaign, which ran over 21 months, significantly reduced accident frequency.
Nudges work best when rigorously tested with small-scale experiments that evaluate their impact. Because behavioral scientists are infrequently consulted in creating these policies, some studies suggest that only 62 percent have a statistically significant effect. Other research reveals that up to 15 percent of desired interventions may backfire.
In the case of roadside mortality signage, the data are damning. The new research based on the Texas signs aligns with several past studies. For instance, research has shown that increasing people’s anxiety causes them to drive worse. Another, a Virginia Tech study in a laboratory setting, found that showing drivers fatality messages increased what psychologists call “cognitive load,” or the amount of information your brain is processing, with emotionally-salient information being especially burdensome and preoccupying, thus causing more distraction.
Nonetheless, Texas, along with at least 28 other states, has pursued mortality messaging campaigns since 2012, without testing them effectively. Behavioral science is critical here: when road signs are tested by people without expertise in how minds work, the results are often counterproductive. For example, the Virginia Tech research looked at road signs that used humor, popular culture, sports, and other nontraditional themes with the goal of provoking an emotional response. When they measured how participants responded to these signs, they noticed greater cognitive activation and attention in the brain. Thus, the researchers decided, the signs worked. But a behavioral scientist would note that increased attention likely contributes to the signs’ failure. As the just-published study in Science makes clear, distracting, emotionally-loaded signs are dangerous to drivers.
But there is good news. First, in most cases, it’s very doable to run an effective small-scale study testing an intervention. States could set up a safety campaign with a few electric signs in a diversity of settings and evaluate the impact over three months on driver crashes after seeing the signs. Policymakers could ask researchers to track the data as they run ads for a few months in a variety of nationally representative markets for a few months and assess their effectiveness. They could also ask behavioral scientists whether their proposals are well designed, whether similar policies have been tried previously in other places, and how these policies have worked in practice.
Everyday citizens can write to and call their elected officials to ask them to make this kind of research a priority before embracing an untested safety campaign. More broadly, you can encourage them to avoid relying on armchair psychology and to test their intuitions before deploying initiatives that might place the public under threat.
I walked through the Dong Makkhai forest-products market, just outside of Vientiane, the laid-back capital of the Lao Peoples Democratic Republic or Lao PDR. Piled on rough display tables were varieties of six-legged wildlife–grasshoppers, small white crickets, house crickets, mole crickets, wasps, wasp eggs and larvae, dragonflies, and dung beetles. Some were roasted or fried, but in a few cases, still alive and scrabbling at the bottom of deep plastic bowls. I crunched on some fried crickets and larvae.
One stall offered Giant Asian hornets, both babies and adults. I suppressed my inner squirm and, in the interests of world food security and equity, accepted an offer of the soft, velvety larva; they were smooth on the tongue and of a pleasantly cool, buttery-custard consistency. Because the seller had already given me a free sample, I felt obliged to buy a chunk of the nest with larvae and some dead adults, which the seller mixed with kaffir lime leaves.
The year was 2016 and I was in Lao PDR because Veterinarians without Borders/Vétérinaires sans Frontières-Canada had initiated a project on small-scale cricket farming. The intent was to organize and encourage rural women to grow crickets as a source of supplementary protein and sell them at the market for cash. As a veterinary epidemiologist, I had been trained to exterminate disease spreading insects—Lyme disease-carrying ticks, kissing bugs that carry American Sleeping Sickness and mosquitoes carrying malaria, West Nile and Zika. Now, as part of a global wave promoting insects as a sustainable food source, I was being asked to view arthropods as micro-livestock, and devise management methods to keep them alive and healthy. It was a bit of a mind-bender.
The 21st century wave of entomophagy, or insect eating, first surged in the early 2010s, promoted by a research centre in Wageningen, a university in the Netherlands, conferences organized by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, and enthusiastic endorsements by culinary adventurers and celebrities from Europeanized cultures. Headlines announced that two billion people around the world already ate insects, and that if everyone adopted entomophagy we could reduce greenhouse gases, mitigate climate change, and reign in profligate land and water use associated with industrial livestock production.
Furthermore, eating insects was better for human health than eating beef. If we were going to feed the estimated nine billion people with whom we will share the earth in 2050, we would need to make some radical changes in our agriculture and food systems. As one author proclaimed, entomophagy presented us with a last great chance to save the planet.
In 2010, in Kunming, a friend had served me deep-fried bamboo worms. I ate them to be polite. They tasted like French fries, but with heads.
The more recent data suggests that the number of people who eat insects in various forms, though sizeable, may be closer to several hundreds of millions. I knew that from several decades of international veterinary work. Sometimes, for me, insect eating has been simply a way of acknowledging cultural diversity. In 2010, in Kunming, a friend had served me deep-fried bamboo worms. I ate them to be polite. They tasted like French fries, but with heads. My friend said he preferred them chewier. I never thought about them much after that. I certainly had not thought about them as ingredients for human health.
Is consuming insects good for human health? Researchers over the past decade have begun to tease that apart. Some think it might not be useful to use the all-encompassing term insect at all; we don’t lump cows, pigs, chickens into one culinary category. Which insects are we talking about? What are they fed? Were they farmed or foraged? Which stages of the insects are we eating? Do we eat them directly or roasted and ground up?
The overall research indicates that, in general, the usual farmed insects (crickets, locusts, mealworms, soldier fly larvae) have high levels of protein and other important nutrients. If insects are foraged by small groups in Laos, they provide excellent food supplements. Large scale foraging in response to global markets can be incredibly destructive, but soldier fly larvae fed on food waste and used as a substitute for ground up anchovies for farmed fish (as Enterra Feed in Canada does) improves ecological sustainability.
Entomophagy alone might not save the planet, but it does give us an unprecedented opportunity to rethink how we produce and harvest protein.
The author enjoys insects from the Dong Makkhai forest-products market, just outside of Vientiane, the capital of the Lao Peoples Democratic Republic.
Between 1961 and 2018, world chicken production increased from 4 billion to 20 billion, pork from 200 million to over 100 billion pigs, human populations doubled from 3.5 billion to more than 7 billion, and life expectancy (on average) from 52 to 72 years. These dramatic increases in food production are the result of narrowly focused scientific studies, identifying specific nutrients, antibiotics, vaccines and genetics. What has been missing is any sort of peripheral vision: what are the unintended consequences of our narrowly defined success?
If we look more broadly, we can see that this narrowly defined success led to industrial farming, which caused wealth, health and labor inequities; polluted the environment; and created grounds for disease outbreaks. Recent generations of Europeanized people inherited the ideas of eating cows, pigs and chickens, along with their products, so we were focused only on growing them as efficiently as possible. With insects, we have an exciting chance to start from scratch. Because, for Europeanized people, insect eating is so strange, we are given the chance to reimagine our whole food system in consultation with local experts in Asia and Africa (many of them villagers), and to bring together the best of both locally adapted food production and global distribution.
For this to happen, we will need to change the dietary habits of the big meat eaters. How can we get accustomed to eating bugs? There’s no one answer, but there are a few ways. In many cases, insects are ground up and added as protein supplements to foods like crackers or bars. In certain restaurants, the chefs want you to get used to seeing the bugs as you eat them. At Le Feston Nu in Paris, the Arlo Guthrie look-alike bartender poured me a beer and brought out five small plates, each featuring a different insect in a nest of figs, sun-dried tomatoes, raisins, and chopped dried tropical fruits: buffalo worms, crickets, large grasshoppers (all just crunchy and no strong flavour, maybe a little nutty), small black ants (sour bite), and fat grubs with a beak, which I later identified as palm weevil larvae, tasting a bit like dried figs.
Some entomophagy advertising has used esthetically pleasing presentations in classy restaurants. In London, at the Archipelago restaurant, I dined on Summer Nights (pan fried chermoula crickets, quinoa, spinach and dried fruit), Love-Bug Salad (baby greens with an accompanying dish of zingy, crunchy mealworms fried in olive oil, chilis, lemon grass, and garlic), Bushman’s Cavi-Err (caramel mealworms, bilinis, coconut cream and vodka jelly), and Medieaval Hive (brown butter ice cream, honey and butter caramel sauce and a baby bee drone).
The Archipelago restaurant in London serves up a Love-Bug Salad: baby greens with an accompanying dish of zingy, crunchy mealworms fried in olive oil, chilis, lemon grass, and garlic.
Some chefs, like Tokyo-based Shoichi Uchiyama, try to entice people with sidewalk cooking lessons. Uchiyama's menu included hornet larvae, silkworm pupae, and silkworms. The silkworm pupae were white and pink and yellow. We snipped off the ends and the larvae dropped out. My friend Zen Kawabata roasted them in a small pan over a camp stove in the street to get the "chaff" off. We made tea from the feces of worms that had fed on cherry blossoms—the tea smelled of the blossoms. One of Uchiyama-san’s assistants made noodles from buckwheat dough that included powdered whole bees.
At a book reading in a Tokyo bookstore, someone handed me a copy of the Japanese celebrity scandal magazine Friday, opened to an article celebrating the “charms of insect eating.” In a photo, scantily-clad girls were drinking vodka and nibbling giant water bugs dubbed as toe-biters, along with pickled and fried locusts and butterfly larvae. If celebrities embraced bug-eating, others might follow. When asked to prepare an article on entomophagy for the high fashion Sorbet Magazine, I started by describing a clip of Nicole Kidman delicately snacking on insects.
Taking a page from the success story of MacDonald’s, we might consider targeting children and school lunches. Kids don’t lug around the same dietary baggage as the grownups, and they can carry forward new eating habits for the long term. When I offered roasted crickets to my grandchildren, they scarfed them down. I asked my five-year-old granddaughter what she thought: she preferred the mealworms to the crickets – they didn’t have legs that caught in her teeth.
Entomo Farms in Ontario, the province where I live, was described in 2015 by Canadian Business magazine as North America’s largest supplier of edible insects for human consumption. When visiting, I popped some of their roasted crickets into my mouth. They were crunchy, a little nutty. Nothing to get squeamish over. Perhaps the human consumption is indeed growing—my wife, at least, has joined me in my entomophagy adventures. When we celebrated our wedding anniversary at the Public Bar and Restaurant in Brisbane, Australia, the “Kang Kong Worms” and “Salmon, Manuka Honey, and Black Ants” seemed almost normal. Of course, the champagne helped.