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Big Data Drools Over Wearable Sensor Potential

IoT on your wrist offers a wide range of possible benefits but privacy concerns and ethical uses need to be addressed.

The Internet of Things (IoT) is upon us, reforming our lives step by innovative step. Wearable sensors, although not exactly newcomers to the tech and gadgetry scene, represent an IoT trend with no end in sight. Despite relatively shaky beginnings (with all too many wrist monitors abandoned in cupboards, overtaken by more convenient smartphone applications), passive sensor applications and wearable tech isn’t going away anytime soon.

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Indeed, wearable sensors represent a new horizon for the Internet of Things. As such, it should be no surprise to discover that plans are underway to both monetize wearables and find ways of making them as indispensable as smartphones.

The key to the ongoing success and increasing relevance to our daily lives comes down to their big data potential and the fact that wearable sensors can gather vast quantities of data that can be stored, measured, and utilized to improve our day-to-day lives.

Plans currently underway to implement wearable sensors are far-reaching and often unexpected. As this technology grows exponentially, far beyond the humble capabilities of the early FitBits from a decade ago, there are -- of course -- no shortage of challenges. Data (mis)management and the vanishing concept of online personal privacy stand at the forefront of many potential hurdles. Such issues need to be tackled before enterprises can reap the true potential of IoT and wearables.

Understanding Big Data

The world of digital technology never stops turning, never stops generating data, and rarely misses an opportunity to pioneer new techniques, methods, and approaches of analyzing it. We’ve seen first-hand how big data plays a key role in societal advancement throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

Naturally, the big technology companies of the world (including Microsoft, Dell, IBM, SAP, and their peers) invest vast sums into data collection and analysis, with even conservative estimates claiming 163 zettabytes of data will be generated in the next five years. Exactly how this will transform the world is as yet unclear, but we can expect that current trends (such as the reality that machine learning and data analysis will continue to create real-world, practical, and potentially life-changing applications) will continue.

How Wearables and IoT Gather Big Data

Although it’s tempting to see big data’s active use as the stuff of science fiction, the reality is that big data sets are being collated and analyzed right here, right now, and in a number of ways.

One current trend is that big data sets are mostly captured passively -- that is, the subjects of the data takes no intentional action to share their information. Take wrist monitors and digital watches, which can gather expansive amounts of data from their wearers. The same goes for sensors placed in public spaces such as hospitals, schools, and workplaces across the globe.

Then we get into examples led by the rise of smart household devices, most notably AI assistants, refrigerators, and that smartphone likely sitting in your pocket. Most of us have invited vast interconnected networks into our homes and to accompany us everywhere we go. In this sense, IoT is already all around us.

Opportunities of Big Data

However, many of the most beneficial examples of big data applications are still in their earliest stages of development and have yet to reveal their true potential. In no other industry is this more true than in healthcare, where wearables and IoT applications have clear and dramatic benefits, capable of saving lives and improving health.

Take, for example, cases of personalized medication. Wearable sensors can gather customized data about an individual’s habits, routine, diet, exercise levels, heart rate, and thousands more variables, which in turn helps healthcare professionals move away from speculative prescriptions and towards medication tailored for better outcomes. Furthermore, the same data could be used in preventive medicine, with algorithms that predict diseases earlier than before, and in exploratory biomedical research based on the testing of hypotheses.

Governmental and developmental uses of big data, too, have possibilities for far-reaching positive changes to society. The more widespread wearable sensors become, the more precise data can be gathered regarding everything from population movement to health, employment to education, and satisfaction to skills acquisition. Such data sets can -- and I predict will -- improve policy creation, public investment, and other decisions by using hard data and reliable information.

Perhaps most positively and excitingly, big data also has the potential for the further democratization of society. The data can be gathered from communities often excluded from the major decisions and policies governing their lives, in the same way that it is gathered from anyone else. It isn’t hard to imagine how, perhaps sooner than ever imagined possible, disenfranchised voices could be heard more clearly via the data gathered from their wearables.

Overcoming Big Data Challenges

The constantly increasing volumes of passive data capture goes above and beyond any conventional privacy, analysis, and data storage methods of the past. Certain sectors of the population are -- perhaps understandably -- growing concerned about the way such data will be used and how reliable it actually is.

It is up to the data management professionals of today and tomorrow to seek out and implement innovative ways of storing the data sets gathered by wearables and IoT devices -- a significant task, not least because such data has long since moved on from just words and numbers and into the realm of multimedia, audiovisual, and 3D modeling information.

Of course, the ethical concerns and potential privacy issues are an unavoidable part of the equation now. Worries regarding how big data gathered from wearable devices, especially those which gather data passively, are perhaps the one thing that could halt the progress of this technology. The responsibility, therefore, falls to data management teams to work alongside privacy rights groups, community leaders, and sectors of local and national government to determine, implement, and monitor the ethical uses of the data gathered to put people’s minds at rest.

Looking to the Future

As with any pioneering technology, the data gathered by increasingly prevalent wearable devices may help improve lives. However, it also carries conceivable downsides such as misuse in the hands of totalitarian regimes, cyber criminals, or unethical organizations. One thing is for sure: wearable sensor technology isn’t going to go away. It will continue to reveal more sophisticated and widely adopted products and services across all sectors of society.

Balancing ethics and transparency are likely keys to long-term success.

About the Author

Bernard Brode is a nanotech product researcher at Microscopic Machines where he explores new technologies to include in innovative products. You can reach the author via email or LinkedIn.

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