Amazon, Google, and the Ethics of Data: How Berkeley Students Can Compete with Tech Giants

“Google and Amazon are so disruptive that it’s hard to think of a single company unthreatened by their presence today. If this is where your future competition will come from, how do you guard yourself for combat in this landscape? That’s what Amazoogle is all about…”

– Shomit Ghose, Entrepreneur & Venture Capitalist

Today’s almighty tech companies have risen to the top by creating platforms to generate the most valuable and easily-stored resource in modern history: our data. Data is a resource unlike any other in that it grows exponentially in value as more is collected. As a result, companies have invested immense time and research to introduce new data-collecting tools. These tools are given to the user in the form of likes, favorites, friends, profiles, comments, captions, bookmarks, reviews, ratings, searches, clicks, and basically all online navigational behaviors. Each one becomes a data point for the company to utilize. 

Data scientists who work for the company are then paid a premium to mine, query, analyze, and monetize the trends and insights that lie in the data, creating enormous value for the select few companies who happened to claim this online territory. These select few are known as the FAANG tech companies (Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix, and Google).

As daily users of these online platforms, it should come as no surprise to us that the data we provide (both directly and indirectly) may be used to generate a wealth of insights about our behavior. However, it may be surprising to learn that seemingly insignificant data points, otherwise known as weak data, can have broad implications in regards to our beliefs and ideologies. 

For example, a 2018 research study on consumer data found that an individual’s tendency to buy JIF peanut butter and eat at Arby’s diner shows a positive correlation with conservative political leaning. How or why this correlation exists is not necessarily relevant. What matters is the insight itself. The data says what the data says, and in this case, all it took was just two extraordinarily trivial data points.

This type of research alludes to a larger reality about the collection and analysis of our own data as users of the FAANG tech companies. Most of us gladly accept the terms and conditions of use when signing up for an online platform. Rarely are we concerned with the insights that may come from our online information. But as new stories begin to break, people are waking up to the reality that tech companies may know our behaviors better than we do. And these insights can be used, as seen in the most recent election, to seriously alter the way people think and behave. 

Considering the myriad issues that arise from data misuse, it may be easy to conclude that no good can be extracted from all this information. Fortunately, that is not at all the case. There is a wealth of incredible applications for which data is being used in a positive light to change the world. The industries of healthcare, finance, manufacturing, entertainment, transportation, and security are undergoing a revolution due to the advances in computation and data analytics. No industry is immune to its effects.

Thus the data revolution has spawned an abundance of opportunities in the marketplace, allowing those with the right technical knowledge to seriously disrupt major companies. 

In this new landscape of opportunity, knowledge is power. So how can the next generation of entrepreneurs be taught to utilize data to compete with the FAANG companies, while still maintaining ethical practices?

Answering this question is the primary focus of Shomit Ghose’s Amazoogle Challenge Lab. In this 4-unit course offered by the Sutardja Center, Ghose reveals industry insights he’s generated from decades as a serial entrepreneur and venture capital investor in data-driven startups. With a strong belief in the potential for data to transform our society, Ghose consistently emphasizes that user information must be treated with exceptional thought and care.

Shomit Ghose speaking at the Fall 2019 BMOE Bootcamp

“As consumers, we need to be very wary of our data trails.  No matter how seemingly insignificant, these trails are capable of intruding on our privacy in very intimate ways.  As business people, we need to have a very bright red line about the unethical uses of data, and need to also keep our eyes open even for unintentional uses of data in an unethical way.”

Throughout his 12-week intensive course, Ghose ensures that students are first exposed to a variety of case studies on ethical data collection, consumer behavior, and data-centric business models. Amazoogle students then spend the remaining half of the semester forming a team and creating their own data-driven startup based upon what they’ve learned. 

In the final week of the semester, teams pitch their ideas to a panel of judges and a single winner is selected. As Ghose recalls, “In 2018, we definitely picked a worthy winner; but the quality of teams was so high that it was a difficult decision to make. I think it’s a testament to the excellence of the Cal student body. Students demonstrate an impressive level of innovation, insight, and drive in the context of this competition. It’s always exciting to see what they will come up with.”

This winner of the competition then goes on to join the Collider Cup, an all-star showcase of the best student teams from SCET classes each semester. These teams are given the opportunity to pitch in front of real investors for a legitimate chance of funding.

As Ghose emphasizes, “The aim is to arm Berkeley students with leading industry knowledge about the methodologies that are being pioneered by today’s leading tech companies. We need to see what the [FAANG] companies are doing and then do our best to emulate the philosophies that they employ.”

Amazoogle teams walk away with a combination of ethical foresight, technical knowledge, and practical application; skills that prove crucial for combat in the cutthroat landscape of tech competition.

Interested in taking this class? Refer to the course page of the SCET Website for more information.

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