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.