Algorithm is not a Four-Letter Word: Understanding the Benefits of Data Collection

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A questionable tweet from Daily Mail writer Piers Morgan. Screenshot taken from twitter.

Algorithm is a word we hear more and more frequently in the digital age. But what exactly is an algorithm?

Simply put, an algorithm is “just a series of instructions – a set of rules to solve a problem.”

Algorithms play an important role in the world of computer programming- they are employed by search engines like Google and social media like Facebook. Algorithms can be used to collect information on users, and for this reason, many are understandably wary of them and the threat they pose to privacy.

But instead of eschewing algorithms and data collection as a 1984-esque problem, we need to make an effort to understand what algorithms actually do, and the benefits they offer as well as the risks.

Some sites can use the information gathered by algorithms for monetary gain by tailoring advertisements to the user based on where they go and what they look at on the web. Algorithms can even collect personal information – creating yet another ethical dilemma for the new age. Who has access to the data gather by algorithms? What information should be protected from algorithms? Can the information be exploited?

With so many questions, it makes sense for us to be wary. As with most technology, there are ways data algorithms can be abused. But this is another case where the benefits outweigh the risks, and chances are, algorithms are not going anywhere anytime soon.

Whether we like it or not, algorithms are a part of the reality of our digital world. Instead of dismissing algorithms outright, we need to understand what it is, what they do, and how we can make them work for us.

Algorithms can be used for the greater good. In one instance, algorithms were used to help spread awareness of HIV among homeless teens. The algorithms increased the spread of information by 60%, potentially saving the lives of teens in need.

In another example, medical algorithm developer Zebra unveiled algorithms that could help diagnose diseases that are typically under-diagnosed. If successful, these kinds of algorithms can certainly save lives.

Algorithms can also help in our daily lives. Popular search engines, which can make life easier for all of us, use algorithms to show us the best results.

While there are certainly risks involved with algorithms and data collection, we need to make an effort to understand what algorithms do for us.

We can be cautious and critical about how data collection and algorithms are used, but there is no reason to outright fear them. Algorithm is not a four-letter word.

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