World and Nation

MITx raises big questions about how information is used

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — With the success of its free open online course system, called MITx, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology finds itself sitting on a wealth of student data that researchers might use to compare the efficacy of virtual teaching methods, and perhaps advance the field of Web-based instruction.

Since its inception several years ago, for instance, MITx has attracted more than 760,000 unique registered users from about 190 countries, university officials said. Those users have generated 700 million interactions with the school’s learning system and have contributed around 423,000 forum entries, many of them personal.

As researchers contemplate mining the students’ details, however, the university is grappling with ethical issues raised by the collection and analysis of these huge data sets, known familiarly as Big Data, said L. Rafael Reif, president of MIT.

“How do we set the boundaries, and balance the competing interests?” Reif asked in a public talk Monday morning. “If you believe in the potential of digital learning, you have to care about the larger question: How can we harness this flood of data to generate positive change — without destroying the very idea of privacy? Parallel questions hover over our work in field after field.”

As the opening speaker at a workshop titled Big Data Privacy, sponsored by MIT and the White House, Reif framed some of the big questions that have arisen from the increasing public and private sector use of powerful large-scale data-mining techniques.

While proponents view such big data analytics as promising tools for discovering useful insights in medicine, education, marketing and many other fields, consumer advocates warn that without explicit federal rules or policies overseeing their use, computer-generated algorithms could potentially be used to identify people who would prefer to remain anonymous, or to discriminate.

They could be used, for example, to offer some consumers perks while others are charged higher prices or interest rates.

One goal of the project, said John Podesta, the counselor to the president who is leading a Big Data privacy review, is to determine how the public and private sectors might maximize the flow of information necessary for innovation while minimizing the potential privacy risks to individuals.

“Have we fully considered the myriad ways in which this data revolution might create social value?” he asked.