"Liberty without security is fragile, but security without liberty is oppressive"

By Kalina Leiling
posted on January 29, 2014 in Leadership, Politics and Society, Security/Intelligence

How big data can solve complex problems in foreign policy

“The fastest way to grow is to come up with a great idea,” said Alec Ross said in a presentation, as a part of the Big Data and Analytics incubator series. Mr. Ross is a former Senior Innovation Advisor for Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton. He was invited as a Keynote Speaker in order to help future leaders understand the role of big data and innovation in developing foreign policy and crafting solutions to critical global challenges.

“I consider myself a young professional in foreign policy,” this is how the 41-year old technical guru Alec Ross started his presentation on Big Data and Foreign Policy. His speech took place on December 5, at 6.30pm in George Washington University. Forty five young people listened to and benefited from Mr. Ross’s ideas on technologies and critical global solutions.

Alec Ross set a baseline in the beginning, giving his definitions of data, big data and metadata: “Data is the facts and statistics collected for analysis. Big data is the term used to describe the process of applying serious computer power to massive and often highly complex sets of information. Metadata is the data about data or data ‘stripped’ of content.” Mr. Ross used an original analogy on evolution. He said that land is the raw material of the agricultural age, iron is the raw material of the industrial age, and data is the raw material of the information age.

When the young innovator referred to the organization that has the most powerful tools to use and read data, he said, “There is the National Security Agency and everybody else.” He pointed out that 99% of big data management is conducted by the NSA.

Is big data big brother? “It depends,” the young diplomat said. It depends on how data is used. His opinion is that small minds discuss people, average minds discuss events and great minds discuss ideas. Mr. Ross stated that, “liberty without security is fragile, but security without liberty is oppressive.”  Machines need human governance and executive, legislative and judicial oversight to function properly. According to Mr. Ross, however, the government can do a better job using these powers for data management.

Mr. Ross illustrated how data is underused. He noted that the U.S. Government can improve its practices in using big data. He observed that the Department of Defense invests huge amounts in technology and intelligence, but spends little on data. He also commented on big data and diplomacy: “Diplomats say that there is simply too much information.” But Mr. Ross gave a few examples of best practices in the data field. While he worked for the U.S. Department of State as a Senior Advisor for Innovation, he developed an anonymous mobile survey in Mexico to acquire data about a drug cartel. This data eventually helped break the cartel.

One troublesome issue is that with the rise of big data in the last five years, privacy has become radically compromised. In Ross’s opinion, anyone who expects to have privacy in personal and professional planes is naive. Ross talked about degradation of personal privacy and asymmetric views of privacy. He pointed out that privacy has a different meaning in different parts of the world. In the Middle East the term “privacy” has value on paper, but in reality it is not a prerogative. In Europe, it is a human right to have privacy. The United States are somewhere in the middle. Privacy has become politically charged. Republicans and Democrats interpret privacy issues differently. Ross called on everyone who participated in the module to start making a difference, so big data is understood and applied correctly in government policies.

After Mr. Ross’s presentation, the Q&A session started. Many comments and questions came from government employees, particularly, ones from the Department of Defense and the Department of State. Mr. Ross agreed the government is slow to implement changes and bureaucracy makes big data application challenging. One question that arose was about the young people in the government who want to make an impact now, but will not be in leadership positions for ten more years.

“Coming up with a great idea is the fastest way to get a leadership position.” Mr. Ross said, “Sometimes you need to misbehave and be impolite.” If you have an idea that can utterly improve the effectiveness and efficiency of a program, you need to be bold and say it. Future leaders should have the courage to express their big ideas, although, “This might get you fired,” Ross warned. The entrepreneur said that he failed many times, but said it was worth it. Mr. Ross shared that from the age of 26 to the age of 36 he took himself too seriously and he thought too often about the future. Now, he wants to focus on the present and live for the moment.

What about you? Do you always think what is next? Are you ready to shout your great idea and revolutionize the world through big data? Are you ready to be the next Alec Ross?