We all know that data is a very powerful and valuable resource. Private companies and public organizations are increasingly turning to data to provide them with deep insights into their business, market, and operations.
Data mining is the process where data analysts draw conclusions from raw data. Just as we need to refine physical resources before they are useful to us, we need to mine raw data to discover what it tells us.
Data is a tool like any other. Insights from a single set of data can improve people’s lives or make them worse. For businesses looking for ways to cut costs and erode rights and protections of workers, data gives them a powerful weapon to wield.
Businesses ultimately exist to make money. Anything that a business does, it does with the goal of turning a profit. Some companies treat workers better than others; but when a business seems to be going the extra mile for their workers, it is often doing so out of self-interest.
A great example of this is giving out free food for workers. Offering staff free food seems like altruism. But many people leave the office in the evening because they need to go home and feed themselves. If their employer provides them with free food at work, there’s one less reason for them to leave.
Cheap and Easy Benefits
By offering benefits that cost the business a negligible amount, managers can manipulate their workforce into unwarranted loyalty. At a glance, the business might appear to be benevolently bestowing new perks upon their staff. However, these moves are often little more than cynical ploys to make workers think they are receiving a better deal than they really are.
Until the Covid-19 pandemic, corporate profits in the US were skyrocketing. The rate at which corporations saw their earnings increase far outpaced the growth of wages. As a result, health insurance plans are far less generous than they used to be. This disparity prevails, even if businesses are spending more dollars than ever on healthcare.
A health insurance package that makes 10% of an employees’ overall benefits package is worth less today than 15 years ago. Some economists argue that this is a correction. And that previously overly-generous plans would have encouraged workers to use more healthcare services than needed.
Data mining is the tool that businesses use to work out how to best approach worker benefits. Their goal is to find the optimal set of benefits to offer workers. In this case, ‘optimal’ means the benefits that cost the business the least while gaining them the most.
With the right data at hand, businesses can use data mining to predict how workers will react to their decisions and what the long-term consequences will be as a result. If a manager can’t decide whether to give their workers health insurance or comfortable new chairs, data can provide an answer.
Businesses today have access to more data about their workers than ever before. Some businesses are going as far as to track their workers through GPS. It’s one thing to monitor a company vehicle using GPS, but the monitoring of individuals via GPS on their company-issued cellphones is an increasingly common practice. This data could provide businesses with unprecedented insight into their employees’ personal lives.
Who Is to Blame?
It is easy to put everything above down to corporate greed. However, this is an oversimplification of what is happening. We must lay a good portion of the blame on data scientists, who have promoted data mining as an infallible decision-making tool.
Data scientists and analysts trying to promote their services don’t care about employees’ wellbeing. If they have data suggesting that a business can save money by slashing health benefits and investing the money in new furniture, they will present it as a cost-saving measure. It is up to employers to seriously think about the ethical ramifications such measures create.
When we use data mining for the right reasons, it can be a powerful tool for doing good. The insights that we glean from mining data are often surprising. But it is important not to get caught up in this excitement. Just because we can use data mining to identify trends and opportunities, that doesn’t mean it is ethically okay for us to exploit them.
Millions of people are at a disadvantage because their employers have allowed cold, emotionless algorithms to decide on their benefits packages. Both employers and employees need to be aware of the pitfalls of data mining.