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Use and misuse of data

The amount of data being collected by various organisations has been growing rapidly since the realisation that it could be 'mined'.
© Coventry University. CC BY-NC 4.0

The amount of data being collected by various organisations has been growing rapidly since the realisation that it could be ‘mined’ and used to identify patterns and trends, root out inefficiencies or tweak products and pricing. Until quite recently, this was considered good practice and a sign of an organisation adapting to the bright new world of big data.

In the past few years, however, the world has begun to recognise the potential dark side to this kind of activity. One of the most high profile cases is perhaps that of Cambridge Analytica, but it is definitely not an isolated issue.

The Data Protection Act, as we have already discussed, specifically sets out certain protections that are intended to curb the worst of these problems.

It’s easy to see that certain uses are good and others bad. Using large collections of data to help cancer research, for example, is clearly a good thing. Using data to shift election voting is just as clearly a bad thing.

For this activity, we would like you to read about how John Deere uses big data, collected with the help of their fleets of high-tech farm equipment, to assist farmers, reduce machine down-time, plant crops in the right places or plan efficient routes for harvesting. Start with this article from Datafloq but feel free to expand your reading.

At first, this sounds like a very good use of data. It helps farmers, raises crop yields and lowers fuel consumption.

Now, consider what might happen if the same company, while still using the data for all of those good purposes, started to also use it to work out what crops were going to do well across the country, or which would fail, which would be in short supply, and so on. Should they be able to use this knowledge to play the stock market? The data collected isn’t ‘personal’ in the sense it doesn’t need to identify individual farmers or even farms, but should those farmers, who are using John Deere equipment that collects the data, be allowed to opt out? Should they be compensated if John Deere uses the data for profit in this way?

Just to be clear, we are not suggesting that this is something John Deere actually does. Rather, we want you to think through the problem without being influenced by reporting, as might happen if we chose Cambridge Analytica, for example.

Your task

Think about the potential use or misuse of the data collected by John Deere. Do you think it is legal or moral? Use the discussion to make your case and see what your fellow learners think about this topic.

References (2018) Data Protection Act 2018 [online] available from [31 July 2019]

© Coventry University. CC BY-NC 4.0
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