What is big data?

The world is filled with devices that record our activities: our locations, associations, purchases and conversations; our likes and dislikes, our entertainment choices, our physical activities, our desires and our fears. All this data, which we create simply through the act of living in a networked, digital world, has value: to advertisers wanting to sell to us, to insurance companies wanting to assess our risk, to politicians competing for our votes.

Increasingly, it also has value to government departments as they try to decide who to provide services to, or withdraw opportunities from.

Governments have long used statistics to make predictions. What’s new is the availability of precise, detailed information about so many aspects of our lives, coupled with the ability of computers to trawl through massive amounts of material and extract previously unknown insights. The ability of machines to process vast amounts of data and “learn” from it has brought artificial intelligence out of the science fiction novel and into our living rooms – as well as into the corridors of power.

To date, much of the reporting on these developments has focused on the US. But the growth of data-driven systems is increasingly a worldwide phenomenon.

Two years ago Theresa May, then the prime minister, promised a new industrial strategy that would “put the UK at the forefront of the artificial intelligence and data revolution”. This revolution “will disrupt nearly every sector in every country, creating new opportunities and challenges for people, places and businesses to which we must respond”. In Europe, Asia and the Global South the effects of the revolution are already starting to be felt — effects which we intend to scrutinise in our new project.

Falling costs of computing power and storage, coupled with lower budgets for services in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis and the years of austerity which followed, have accelerated the adoption of digital technology in government. Authorities hope that this will enable them to make better decisions more efficiently and more cheaply. But experts warn that this brings with it fundamental shifts in the balance of power between the state, corporations and the individual.

It also highlights disparities of production and consumption between the developed and the developing world. The term “digital” might create an impression that all this technology is virtual, non-physical. But everything happens somewhere. Big data requires lithium extraction in Bolivia, hardware assembly lines in China and toxic e-waste disposal in Ghana. It demands electricity production sufficient to power enormous cloud storage systems, complex supply chains spanning dozens of countries to create and distribute its equipment, and outsourced labour to perform all of these tasks.

The era of big data is an era of big questions. Who owns the data? Who controls it? Who makes money from it? How is it processed, and who is affected by that? These questions are not just technical, but geopolitical, economic, environmental and ethical. As the data revolution takes root around the world, the public interest demands that the media, as well as academics, engineers, civil society and politicians, start to grapple more comprehensively with its complex effects.

Header image: A server bank. Credit: Shutterstock