Category Archives: #BigData

In the Media

The Institute picks interesting stories and news items every week from the worlds of art, culture and social study and presents them in the blog. This week the stories have been chosen by Taina Cooke.
 
 
The universal language of money – Express visa service for big spenders to be expanded
 
Immigration and its effects get a lot of coverage in the news. Generally it is the cons that dominate the headlines: immigrants are without a doubt too many, they are too foreign, too criminal and way too unemployed. The numerous pros introduced by foreign nationals are often dismissed when politicians concentrate on making it more and more difficult for people to enter the country. Outsider swarming into the UK is bad, is the message – unless, of course, there is a flow of cash involved.

David Cameron wants to expand the speedy visa service for wealthy visitors, according to last week’s Financial Times. The prime minister seeks to make the UK more attractive to big spenders from overseas by extending the 24-hour visa service to seven more countries. Currently the visa service, which ensures a decision on application within just one day, is available in China and India and costs a mere £600 per application – that is in addition to the standard visa fee, of course. If and when the plan is brought about, rich people coming also from Turkey, South Africa, United Arab Emirates, Thailand and visa processing centres in New York and Paris are welcomed with open arms.
 
 
It is somewhat peculiar how a big enough pile of money can fade out the otherwise often  overly highlighted borders of different countries. Unlike people, money clearly isn’t discriminated based on its birthplace or origins. Money talks loudly and the heavier the wallet, the easier and less time-consuming the bureaucratic process clearly becomes. The message to outsiders is clear: you are welcome in as long as you spend money, spend it like it’s seriously going out of style.
 
A look into your fridge can reveal your political orientation – YouGov launched a profiling app
 
We at the Finnish Institute have for long been interested in the many possibilities of open knowledge and Big Data. There are numerous ways in which the freedom of information can benefit our lives and make us more aware of matters, facts and figures surrounding us. Open data can be utilised in many ways and one of the freshest examples has been offered by the market research company YouGov.
 
YouGov collected data from its 200,000 active panellists and created a website that allows anyone to access profiles of people showing their different likes and personal preferences. According to Guardian, the site is intended mainly for commercial purposes and it is broken down by demographics based on age, political preferences, earning and multiple niche interests and hobbies. You can type in one of the 30,000 search terms and compare, for example, what Justin Bieber fans have in common. The results can prove to be somewhat amusing.
 
The profile tool tells us, for example, that Miliband’s fans enjoy mushroom stroganoff and admire Pete Seeger. Nick Clegg’s followers are fans of the Eurovision song contest whereas Cameron’s fans listen to Dolly Parton, watch Les Miserables and have a pet fish. The more rightwing you are the more you like sweetcorn and musicians such as Cliff Richard. On the other hand, if you are fond of Kate Bush the chances are you’re also a Guardian-reading male over the age of 40 and work in IT.
 
As you might suspect, the profile tool is not exactly the all-knowing crystal ball with its relatively small and statistically biased sample size. One can, however, easily spend a considerably long period of time typing in different search words just for his/hers own amusement. While doing that one spots, for example, that those British people who have special interest in Finland (307 people) often also play some instrument and have a cat. Those interested in Finland are likely to be females between the ages of 25 and 39 who live in central Scotland and value ethically produced goods and organic food. Those panellists who have a soft spot for Finland also tend to bank with Co-op and spend less than one hour a week watching TV. All this sounds rather fascinating and even if the profile tool can’t be described as statistically sound, it for sure is entertaining.

From Big Data to Insight

The Institute’s Communications Assistant Hanna Heiskanen blogs about a recent event on Big Data.

The How We Prepare for a Future of Big Data? event held at the Finnish Ambassador’s Residence in London on 30 October gathered together a prestigious panel of big data experts as well as a knowledgeable and active audience. The event celebrated the recipient of this year’s Millennium Prize, Professor Stuart Parkin, whose innovations have played a large part in raising big data to the prominent position it has today.

The 1 million euro Millennium Prize has been awarded every other year since 2004 by The Technology Academy Finland. The Technology Academy Finland incorporates the Finnish Academy of Technology, the Swedish Academy of Engineering Sciences in Finland and the Industry Council, which represents leading Finnish companies. The Millennium Prize is funded by the Finnish state, and its recipients are innovators who have significantly improved people’s quality of life. Past beneficiaries include the inventor of World Wide Web Tim Berners-Lee, and Linus Torvalds of the Linux kernel.

Professor Parkin’s work centres on the field of spintronics and has lead to technological discoveries that have dramatically increased the storage capacity of magnetic disk drives. This in turn has allowed for the evolution of large data centres, cloud services, and other applications that require the processing of large amounts of data. Despite an exponential increase in the appetite for Big Data, much of the discussion around it has focused on the technical aspects of storage and processing data. The issues around interpreting and taking advantage of Big Data remain large and significant grey areas, which was also reflected in the discussion.

According to Professor Parkin, we are approaching the end of a technological era in terms of how data is stored and processed, and financial investment on the science that will allow for the development of these facilities must be increased. New approaches to storing and processing big data are emerging and carry huge potential – examples include storing data three- rather than two-dimensionally as well as Parkin’s research subject spintronics, which could increase storage capacity a hundredfold. The potential problem of increased carbon emissions, the by-product of large computers and data centres, could be solved through building more energy-efficient computers, or through handling data locally by people carry computing power directly on them, as envisioned by the President and CEO of Technology Academy Finland Dr Juha Ylä-Jääski.

The growing need to interpret and understand data before it can be applied came across strongly in the panel discussion. While technology is making more data available for use and is becoming better at interpreting it, the CEO and cofounder of Big Data specialists Mastodon C Francine Bennett pointed out that governments are only just starting to think about possible uses for the large amount of data they are already in hold of. Much of data remains unstructured and thus unusable. Indeed, Professor Parkin called for replacing the word ‘data’, which by itself might be useless, with ‘knowledge’. Global CEO of Social DNA business Starcount and developer of Tesco’s Clubcard Edwina Dunn’s sentiment that much of processing of Big Data is currently simply counting echoed the demand for more insight to be extracted from it and applied to practical use.


Cross-science collaboration was mentioned as possibly offering great benefits in making sense of Big Data. Particularly the humanities could be very helpful in creating context for raw data. Both StJohn Deakins, founder and CEO of citizenme, and Dr Ylä-Jääski argued that much of data requires layering or combining over data sets to reach a better picture of what they are about. Keeping the human element in mind is crucial both in understanding that despite all available data people are not machines and their behaviour is therefore difficult to predict, and in making data accessible and understandable for people, in which visualizing data might prove useful.

The gap between what can be done with Big Data and what should be done with it remains, in the words of Edwina Dunn, a form of art and is a particularly difficult issue from a legislative point of view. According to StJohn Deakins, the key to both more accurate and insightful data and to people’s willingness to share their data lies in creating a reciprocal relationship between the individual and the party holding the data. Dunn argued in the same vein that instead of collecting data behind people’s backs, businesses and organisations should aim to build a relationship of transparency and trust with them. Her rule of thumb for the use of Big Data is that it must always benefit the individual, too, not just for the party holding it. If done right, such a two-way relationship could bring phenomenal leaps forward. Dunn praised the Finnish tax system, which combines data from tax officials, banks, and the individuals, as an example of a successful data sharing relationship. Professor Parkin, on the other hand, brought up Facebook as an example of how people are willing to give up a very large amount of data about themselves as long as they feel they benefit from sharing it. He also suggested that people would feel more involved in society were they aware that revealing more data of themselves would be of general benefit.


The danger of breach of privacy predictably emerged as one of the main threats associated with using Big Data. Edwina Dunn remarked that as the customer is the ultimate judge on a company’s actions, brands value the element of trust most highly. Misuse of data can at worst lead to the removal of the permission to use it. While people should be aware of the data they are giving away and take precautions by for example encrypting it, the main responsibility of the security of data should still lie with the businesses and organisations in hold of and using it, StJohn Deakins said. This highlights building a relationship of trust that is based on reality between the individual and society. The misinterpretation of data was seen as another threat, leading potentially to the wrong conclusions and action taken based on it.


All in all, however, the panel was optimistic about the future of Big Data. Professor Parkin encouraged taking more advantage of scientific open source platforms, which would help accelerate the pace of innovation. He also argued that many of the future benefits or developments of Big Data would be impossible to foresee, just as it would have been impossible to envision the technologies we use today 30 years ago. Parkin nevertheless predicted that education would take huge leaps forward, with more people gaining access to education online, and education becoming more individualised. Francine Bennett identified the utilities industry as a potential field for Big Data. She also recommended combining government data over silos more often than is done at the present. Both Edwina Dunn and StJohn Deakins said that the advertising industry would benefit greatly from Big Data by gaining more insight of people, and therefore becoming more relevant to them. In fact, Deakins argued that in the future advertising as such might disappear completely and be replaced by providing information that is of benefit to the individual. 



The concept of MyData, introduced at the first Open Finland seminar in September, could offer new tools for tackling some of the issues brought up in the discussion, in particular privacy and creating a mutually beneficial relationship of data sharing. It also aims to highlight the active role of the citizens in taking advantage of the data that is being collected of them. You can access the report of MyData, which was commissioned by the Finnish Ministry of Transport and Communications and produced by Open Knowledge Finland, here.
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