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Thu, 9 July 2020

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Big data is a big deal and it’s here to stay

Big data is a big deal and it’s here to stay
5 min read

Daniel Zeichner MP introduces the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Data Analytics which launches today in Parliament.


The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Data Analytics launches today in Parliament. The group aims to explore the opportunities and challenges presented by ‘big data’, a term which refers to the growth of large, complex data that can be analysed to provide valuable new insights. It’s a complicated and controversial area, one that is only going to become more significant as time goes on for those making and influencing policy. Coming from an IT background, I’ve witnessed a drastic shift in technology over the decades and the speed of that shift is increasing. It can perhaps be best encapsulated by a simple fact: around 90 per cent of global data was created in just the last two years - and that amount is predicted to grow year on year for the next decade.

The implications of this explosion of data are manifold - for businesses, for the public sector, and for the individual. With big data come big opportunities, but also big challenges for policy makers. Done right, businesses will prosper, we’ll be able to make smarter decisions for our public services and empower people. But traps also lie in wait when we try to understand the world through data - and ethical and privacy concerns are only going to rise as this technological revolution continues.

That’s why the APPG will approach the topic from several angles: it will explore how big data can be utilised to help both the private and public sectors; how we can develop appropriate safeguards for the collection and use of personal data; and how to deliver the skills base the UK needs to have a leading role in the data revolution.

The potential of big data has been described by the Government as so significant that it could transform every business sector, and a 2012 analysis projected that big data could contribute £216 billion to the UK economy and create 58,000 new jobs over five years. It’s also suggested that data-driven companies are over 10 per cent more productive than those companies that don’t exploit the data they collect.  Businesses can analyse data to identify trends and – using algorithms – create better products and personalised services for consumers. Global success stories like Netflix, Amazon and Facebook are popular with users for a reason. For those companies, data-based decisions are fundamental to their ethos.

The Centre for Economic and Business Research has estimated that there could also be £20 billion of benefit for central government from big data over a five-year period. But while the public sector is in some areas utilising the unprecedented growth of data, much potential is still untapped. Indeed the Science and Technology Select Committee has suggested that while big data can increase the operational efficiency and targeting of service delivery, the Government needs to do more to break down departmental data silos and improve data quality. The potential benefits of big data for healthcare are particularly pronounced, as analysing large datasets could help target treatments and improve diagnostics. Public transport is another key area which could be transformed by data analytics. The use of big data can also foster mutually beneficial relationships between businesses and public services: TfL’s release of datasets for example enabled the creation of 360 transport information apps for mobile phones – generating £250 million for CityMapper - and the Meteorological Office uses data to advise retail and energy sectors about weather affecting consumer trends.

Of course, in tandem with possibilities come problems. For one, how to address legitimate privacy and security concerns, because it is essential here we strike a balance between rightly exploiting the opportunities arising from big data and protecting the rights of the individual. While personal data accounts for just a fragment of big data, many people are concerned, and as we all know there has been a long-term erosion of public trust in institutions. We’ve seen data breaches from both private and public organisations, and such cases do little to rebuild trust in the public that their personal information will remain safe and confidential.

Another problem is that our existing regulatory framework is outdated and unable to keep pace, the Data Protection Act dating from 1998. It is due for an update by 2018 thanks to EU regulations, but with Brexit on the horizon nothing is certain. In May the Government published the first version of the Data Science Ethical Framework, and we need to scrutinise the effectiveness of this framework when it is finalised.

Policy-makers must also consider whether we have the right infrastructure in place to deal with the growth in data we’re seeing. The Open Data Institute put this rather nicely so I’ll borrow their words: we should think about data as infrastructure in the same way we think about roads as infrastructure. Roads help us navigate to places; data helps up navigate to decisions. Are Departments collating and sharing data in a way that best maximises its potential? And does our workforce possess the necessary technical skills to keep up with the data revolution?

I look forward to working with the new APPG on such issues, bringing together experts and organisations approaching the topic from a broad spectrum of perspectives. Big data is a big deal and it’s here to stay – so let’s open the dialogue.

Daniel Zeichner is the Labour MP for Cambridge & Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Data Analytics. For more information about how to get involved in the APPG, please contact juliet.eales@parliament.uk.

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