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Big Data, Big Brother?

Big Data, Big Brother? was the challenging title for the fourth panel session of the series on the 10 November. The speakers who came and provided expert and informed viewpoints on the benefits and challenges of using personal data for research were:

  • Dr Gus Hosein, Executive Director of Privacy International
  • Dr Nathan Lea a Senior Research Associate at the Institute for Health Informatics
  • Andrew Stott, Former Director for Transparency and Digital Engagement for the UK government and member of the Public Sector Transparency Board.

Tanvi Desai, a Co-Director of the Administrative Data Research Network introduced the evening and set the scene briefly explaining the Big Data projects and expertise that are offered and based at Essex.

Dr Daragh Murray, a lecturer at the Human Rights Centre and School of Law and Deputy of the ‘Surveillance and Human Rights’ Work Stream of the Human Rights,  Big Data and Technology Project, here at Essex chaired proceedings with a skilful and knowledgeable touch.  

Panel: Dr. Daragh Murray, Andrew Stott, Dr. Gus Hossein and Dr. Nathan Lea

The panel: Dr. Daragh Murray, Andrew Stott, Dr. Gus Hossein and Dr. Nathan Lea

Daragh began by referring to the scale of data that is gathered about us all and made the point that today that our personal/private data can be tracked back  to us as named individuals.  Usually, there is a distinction made between private data and state held data and tonight’s discussions will involve both.  With regard to state collected data the data is de-identified before it is analysed because it aims to identify trends (not individuals) and achieve results that have potential of benefitting society.  Analysing administrative data is fundamentally important:

  • as allows evaluation of public sector policy to allow resources to be allocated more efficiently,
  • to determine where and when a policy works and
  • to identify various areas of disadvantage so that appropriate interventions can be introduced

Andrew Stott relayed that he has been working on open data, making government data available in order to generate economic and social value.  A lot of this is to do with performance of public services, the performance of schools, health facilities and the performance of the police and that is driving civic engagement.  Much of this is a closer engagement  for individuals  to look at how good, for example the local schools are for their children or the performance of the hospital that a relative will be attending. During his experiences he noted how poor government departments can be on approaching the issues associated with data sharing and commented that there is a lack of a settled policy.

Gus Hosein talked about the reality that he feels society is building.  How technologies everywhere even the technology we buy for ourselves collects and generates data about us and other people that we have very little control over and is  beyond the control of even the most powerful entities.  This data will be under the control of the very few and those very few are going to be generating intelligence. But intelligence agencies are not just governmental, they are companies like Google and  Facebook who are advertising companies.   However, their end game is prediction. Prediction will inevitably end up as direction which describes the scenario we had in the media with  a car insurance company who studied the face book pages of their customers to look at the sort of grammar they used in order to determine what sort of car insurance risk they presented. 

Nathan Lea told the audience that he has been involved in information governance around the health sector and came in when the health service kept separate research datasets relating to health provision, social care etc.

“So I was there in what was really the cusp of big data when the message was to GP clinics and the care sector to digitise their records for care purposes but there is also this re-use agenda on the horizon that will be really useful. How can we merge them and share techniques to solve common problems. 

Fast forward to today where we have the promise of Big data and we have the requirement for more intelligence in terms of deciding policy for health care and how best we can target interventions for practice. I’m also thinking about the point where a lot of this data originates from.  I think we tend to take the big data promise and the privacy directives and requirements  and treat them as separate partners who don’t want to talk to each other.  For me I’m hoping that we reconcile those differences and treat them as one challenge that we can consider”.

These snippets are just a snapshot of the different points that were made and discussed throughout the evening

View the entire panel discussion:

Read the evening's programme


Page last updated: 20/02/2017