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November 17, 2015
‘Big data’: A World of Opportunities and Challenges

DHR’s Account Manager Sebastian Enke recently visited the offices of our partners Political Intelligence in London. Since Political Intelligence was established in 1995, one of its key areas of expertise has been the internet, communications and technology sectors. Today, Sebastian blogs about what he has learned about ‘big data’, its benefits and its challenges for individuals, businesses and governments.


Unprecedented quantities of data are being collected, stored, copied and analysed from a variety of sources. In 2013, there were an estimated 4.4 trillion gigabytes (GB) of data globally, equivalent to approximately 120 DVD movies for every person on the planet. The total amount of global data is expected to grow by about 40 per cent year on year for the next decade. This rapid increase in the availability and complexity of data has led to the term ‘big data’, although this term has no universally agreed definition.

Every day, people generate huge amounts of data, often without realising their staggering output of personal information. Whenever an app on a smartphone is used, for instance, personal data is created, shared and stored. The ubiquitous usage of online services, including social media, is a massive driver of big data. Another significant driver is the opening-up of non-personal data in the public sector, which ranges from greater sharing of resources, such as software or research data in academia, to increased use of data collected by government bodies to improve accountability and generate economic benefits.

Estimates suggest that between 2012-2017, use of big data could contribute £216 billion to the UK economy via business creation, efficiency and innovation. Research also shows that data-driven economies are 10 per cent more productive.

During my week in London, I attended a highly interesting session on big data hosted by the Select Committee on Science and Technology in the UK Parliament. The Committee had invited representatives from various sectors, including research and academia, healthcare and business, to discuss both the uses of big data and areas in Government policy that need to be adapted to adequately meet the needs of this growing industry.

All delegates agreed that the rapid growth in the acquisition, production and use of data opens up a world of opportunities across all sectors. Professor John Williams, Director of the Health Informatics at the Royal College of Physicians, for instance, explained that having access to patients’ consolidated health data could not only save the State billions by streamlining processes and avoiding repetition, but also significantly improve diagnostic routines and the choice of most adequate treatments. However, he also pointed out that personal health data was extremely sensitive and required highly reliable and secure coding systems.

In the wake of the recent leak of customer data at telecom firm TalkTalk, the question of data privacy and security was also discussed at length. Research on public attitudes to the use of personal data has identified privacy, security and discrimination as key concerns. The delegates agreed that implementing mechanisms to ensure greater transparency on how public data is collected, stored and used would go a long way towards allaying public concerns. Education on the issue of big data, its uses and potential risks was also considered essential.

The experts suggested that large parts of the public felt concerned about the management of their data because they had little to no control over it. A recurring recommendation at the committee session – and at a conference on policy issues facing the internet I attended the same week – was to give members of the public more ownership of their data. Future generations would not be satisfied with putting out reams of personal data to unidentified beneficiaries for unknown uses. The public should be able to give different organisations access to different pieces of personal data.

A good example of this was given by Dame Fiona Caldicott, National Data Guardian for Health and Care. In relation to personal health data, she suggested that all patients should have online access to their full medical records. Apart from ensuring maximum transparency and building trust with the patient, this might also help increase the quality and reliability of the data. Commenting on this suggestion, Stella Creasy MP, pointed out that while in the UK ownership of the health record is with the Secretary of State, patients in Switzerland are part of a health co-operative. This means they own their data and opt into what they are prepared to see their data used for.

At the conclusion of the hearing, the delegates suggested to the Committee that the Government should take a firm leadership approach to the management of big data and recommended that building a culture of public data confidence should be at the core of its strategy.

Although I wasn’t entirely new to the concept of big data, my week in London really made it clear to me how pervasive the collection and analysis of data has become, how essential it is for almost all sectors, and how it effects all of us, constantly, whether we’re aware of it or not. It is imperative for individuals, organisations and policy-makers to develop a thorough understanding of its benefits and risks and to formulate forward-looking strategies and policies to harness its potential while protecting the privacy of the consumer. The debate on this big data dilemma is on-going and I am watching with interest. And so should you!

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