By: Daniel Zeichner, Member of Parliament for Cambridge and Chair of the new All-Party Parliamentary Group on Data Analytics
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 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. The Shakespeare Review has identified £6.8bn of total value in UK public sector data, suggesting that:
“…from data we will get the cure for cancer as well as better hospitals; schools that adapt to children’s needs making them happier and smarter; better policing and safer homes; and of course jobs. Data allows us to adapt and improve public services and businesses and enhance our whole way of life, bringing economic growth, wide-ranging social benefits and improvements in how government works.”
With world-leading universities and a rich history in developing algorithms, the UK is well placed to lead in research relating to big data and analytics. Within the University of Cambridge in my constituency, the Cambridge Big Data Strategic Research Initiative addresses challenges presented by our access to unprecedented volumes of data. Their research spans “the underlying fundamentals in mathematics and computer science, to applications ranging from astronomy and bioinformatics, to medicine, social science and the humanities.” The Alan Turing Institute, the UK’s new national institute for data science, aims to “inform scientific and technological discoveries, create new business opportunities, accelerate solutions to global challenges, inform policy-making, and improve the environment, health and infrastructure of the world in an ‘Age of Algorithms’.” In addition to our country’s expertise in data science, we have some of the world’s best datasets. Our health data in particular is a unique and invaluable source on account of our single provider, the NHS.
However, as I’ve suggested, the challenges are by no means insignificant. We need to ensure, for example, that our country possesses the digital skills necessary to remain at the forefront of big data research. Only with the right infrastructure in place can we hope to interpret and analyse the increasing amounts of complex data available.
Furthermore, the use of data raises important ethical questions about privacy. The 1998 Data Protection Act now seems distinctly archaic in the face of such abrupt technological advances, and there is understandably a balance that must be struck between public benefit and individual privacy in relation to the use of big data. While personal data remains a small proportion of big data, the public’s justifiable suspicions and concerns must be addressed in policy, with safeguards for their security set in statute. I was personally quite shocked when given a demonstration of readily available popular software which was able to link voter details with their Twitter and Facebook profiles. With most people unaware of the risks, it is far too easy to know far too much about very intimate details of people’s lives.
This is new terrain. The digital world is likely to expand and change at a rapid pace – far more quickly than parliamentarians can easily legislate to keep up with. That’s why I’ve set up the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Data Analytics, with the help of Policy Connect, to serve as a forum for debate and discussion on the benefits and barriers of the big data revolution. We must ensure that we are the masters of the data revolution, and avoid the risk of being enslaved by it.