How can the UK Keep Up with the ‘Big Data’ Explosion?

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‘Big data’ is the new term coined to define the rapidly growing data industry. A huge 90% of all data that exists currently has been created in just the last two years. In 2014, some 204 million emails were sent every minute.

Author: Rebecca Bennett

This volume of data, and all varieties, poses great potential; which is mostly untapped, a potential that the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills has describes as “so significant that it could transform every business sector”. With the data-age well and truly taking off at a rapid pace, shaping all aspects of society, this is not an overstatement.

The rapid-growing nature of data is inevitably creating new and exciting opportunities to gain insights and develop new techniques and methods.

Trying to pin down a term to define such a large-scale and intangible commodity has inevitable been a challenge. However, the term ‘Big Data’ has recently been coined, aiding the classification of data. The UK Government recently stated in the Information Economy Strategy that the term refers to “ways of handling data sets so large, dynamic and complex that traditional techniques are insufficient to analyse their content”.  They have designated ‘Big Data’ as one of its ‘eight great technologies’, allocating funding in order develop and unlock its potentials for economic growth.

There have already been numerous cases whereby data has been translated to have practical benefits. For example, the ‘National Cancer Intelligence Network Routes to Diagnosis’ data study aided the Public Health England’s ‘Be Clear on Cancer’ campaign by informing them of their findings and, as a result, improving cancer diagnostics. In another example, Spotify’s ‘discover’ feature analyses data in order to suggest new music to its users based on things they have listened to in the past. The Science and Technology Committee conducted an inquiry that found that data-driven companies are some 10% more productive than those companies who do not utilise their data.

With many world-leading universities and a rich history in developing algorithms, the UK is certainly in a highly-beneficial position to take the lead in conducting research relating to ‘Big Data’ and analytics. The ‘Cambridge Big Data Strategic Research Initiative’ at the University of Cambridge for example, addresses many challenges that are faced by our access to such unprecedented volumes of data. Their research currently seeks to investigate “the underlying fundamentals in mathematics and computer science, to applications ranging from astronomy to bioinformatics, to medicine, social science and the humanities”.

Furthermore, the ‘Alan Turing Institute’, one of the UK’s new national institutes of 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’.”

Additionally, alongside our country’s expertise in data science, we have some of the world’s best datasets. The UK’s health data for example, is particularly unique and represents an invaluable source on account of our single provider, the NHS.

This new and exciting opportunity does come with some challenges however. For example, the UK will need to ensure that it possesses the digital skills that are necessary to remain at the forefront of ‘Big Data’ research. This can only be achieved with access to the correct infrastructure in place.

In addition, important ethical questions need to be asked with concern about privacy. The 1998 Data Protection Act now seems somewhat archaic in the face of the rapid and abrupt advances in technology. This means that there is, understandably, a balance needed between public benefit and individual privacy in relations to the use of ‘Big Data’.  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 new terrain invokes challenges, but is also represents a new and exciting milestone, potentially helping to produce great opportunities for the UK. With the rapid nature of the digital world, it is likely that parliament will easily struggle to keep up with its speedy growth. It is important that the UK ensures they become masters of the data revolution, rather than enslaved by it.

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