The big data explosion sets us profound challenges – how can we keep up?
Big data analysis promises huge opportunities, but raises huge issues. How do we ensure we are masters of the data revolution and avoid being enslaved by it?
Big data analytics raises ethical issues that must be properly debated. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo
Daniel Zeichner is Member of Parliament for Cambridge.
Saturday 2 July 2016 03.30 EDT
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Big data is a term we hear being bandied about more and more. Indeed, data is growing exponentially. A whopping 90% of the data that currently exists was created in just the last two years. In 2014 there were 204 million emails every minute. This volume, variety and velocity of data is unprecedented, its territory uncharted – and its potential mostly untapped. That potential has been described by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills as “so significant that it could transform every business sector.” This isn’t an overstatement. The dawn of the data age could have far-reaching implications across all sectors of society and in all corners of the country. Of course, in tandem with great opportunities come great challenges, and the challenges here are profound.
Pinning down a definition for something so intangible is inevitably challenging, but there is broad consensus that massive increases in data create opportunities to gain new insights but also demand new techniques and methods. In their Information Economy Strategy , the UK Government uses the term to refer to “ways of handling data sets so large, dynamic and complex that traditional techniques are insufficient to analyse their content”. Government has designated big data as one of its ‘eight great technologies’ and allocated funding for its development in order to unlock economic growth for our country, and the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee recently led an inquiry into big data .
What could analysing these massive mountains of new data achieve? Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote in Sherlock Holmes, “Data! Data! Data! I can’t make bricks without clay!” He knew the gathering of information was essential to the process of analysis, and the key to unlock conclusions. There are already many examples of data being translated into practical benefits. The National Cancer Intelligence Network Routes to Diagnosis data study helped inform Public Health England’s Be Clear On Cancer campaign to improve cancer diagnostics. Transport for London’s release of transport data led to the creation of Citymapper, an app highly popular with public transport passengers – and now valued at around £250 million. Spotify’s ‘discovery’ feature analyses data to suggest music the user might like to listen to next. The investment opportunities for private sector companies seem boundless. Yet the Science and Technology Committee inquiry heard evidence that, while data-driven companies are around 10% more productive than those that do not operationalise their data, most companies estimate they are analysing just 12% of their data.
And opportunities are not confined to the private sector. Under a Labour Government in 2009, data.gov.uk was launched – a project that opened UK government data to the public and which now contains over 19,000 data sets.