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David Evans, director of Policy and Community at BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT, talks to Government Technology about the meaning behind 'big data' and what it has in store for 2016.
It seems as though everyone is talking about data at the moment – but I must confess to observer bias, as I am definitely looking for it. Every select committee seems to be doing a review where data either plays a role or is the subject of the review. While parliamentarians are still struggling to get a grip on the issues, we’re a long way past the point where ‘big data’ was interpreted as a large-print version on the vellum.
The prime factor driving this interest is that our use of data is seen as the gateway to benefits and the resolution of all kinds of problems across the public task. Beyond the rainbow of user-centered design is the pot of gold of data insights that will help us drive efficiencies and change lives for the better. Data collection is clearly at the heart of our counter-terrorism strategy, just as it is the key to transforming health and social care.
When ‘big data’ became a term in use there was a lot of excitement about the potential but little understanding of what stood between us and benefits realisation. We’re standing on the other side of a major campaign to open up public data and a lot of point-benefits that give us some confidence that there is a reality behind the hype.
Yet much of the hype has been totally centred around a corporate / organisational mindset. The other driving factor is simply that we are running out of public trust. This is in evidence across society and both public services and private business are increasingly finding their gears grinding on issues to do with data protection and data quality. One of the most fundamental unanswered questions is where the dividing line is between personal and non-personal data. Where you can combine data-sets to identify and infer – one of the benefits of big data – one rather scary answer is that you can’t, and from a risk perspective all data may need to be treated as personal data. Maybe.
Our own research at BCS shows that roughly nine out of 10 people want control over their data – what’s stored and how it is used – which is high given the percentage of people that either don’t understand the question or work in digital direct marketing. If you follow this pathway you start to contemplate whether, with our corporate mindsets, we’ve created a world that people don’t really want to live in.
This is nothing new. Writing in the October 1970 issue of the Science Journal, Sandy Douglas (a founder of BCS), asked: "Would we be happy under an efficient tyranny – one in which every movement and action of the citizen was recorded, analysed, cross-checked instantaneously and no incident, no matter how trivial, ever forgotten?"
Shockingly little has changed in that debate in coming up to 50 years. What is changing is that the debate is finally getting out of the tech community and into the mainstream. A lot of data protection legislating can trace its routes through to the debates Sandy and his colleagues were having during the 1970s, but data protection has become an onerous compliance exercise that stops us doing things rather than emancipates the citizenry.
What’s coming in the form of the General Data Protection Regulations is the most significant re-examination of data law since the days of the 70s and early 80s. This is driven in part by a frustration that individual freedoms and benefits are still blithely ignored not only by private business but by those delivering public services. There is nothing wrong, actually, with the principles in the 1995 Data Protection Directive, it’s just that the intent in those principles never became a reality. So what is to stop the GDPR from being another exercise in legislative wishful thinking that simply creates a new industry of compliance consultants?
One thing to consider is that to get the organisational benefits we want requires the individual to be complicit. Soon the NHS will realise that the most valuable data it can use it could never hold without active consent. Large corporations that want to get the most out of their brands are realising that lack of trust around data is holding them up. It is simply a matter of utility.
So my simple forward view in early 2016 is to suggest that the way we currently think and act corporately around personal data has had its day. This is one reason why BCS is making personal data a major focus, because this is one of those rare times where we can act and shift the technology ecosystem to make our society better. This is another opportunity for the government to lead in how it designs and delivers public services, as well as a vast commercial opportunity to build trusted systems that people want to use.
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