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Big Data and society: is it a game changer?

The last of the five Talk Big Data discussions took place on 28 November 2016 and brought together a panel of prominent advocates of the value of big data analysis for social research.

The speakers were:

  • John Pullinger CB, National Statistician for the UK
  • Lord David Willetts, former Minister for Universities and Science
  • Professor Heather Laurie, Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Research at the University of Essex

The panel was chaired by Lynn Wyeth, Head of Information Governance & Risk at Leicester City Council.

Discussion Panel L to R: Lynn Wyeth, Lord David Willetts, Prof. Heather Laurie and John Pullinger CB

Discussion Panel L to R: Lynn Wyeth, Lord David Willetts,
Prof. Heather Laurie and John Pullinger CB

  

Their varying backgrounds and experience with big or administrative data, research and its possible impacts on society soon showed how a clever use of available data can make a massive difference.

Lynn Wyeth mentioned how Leicester City Council was one of the first cities to use public transport data to put up electronic information boards across the city on which travellers could see how long they would have to wait until the next bus. While this has become quite common-place, it is an excellent example of how data can change every day life.

As Professor Laurie pointed out, initiatives like the Administrative Data Research Network and large-scale longitudinal studies aim to provide information to the wider social science community, who can then use that for their own analysis to address the issues they are interested in. This, in turn, benefits society at large.

There have been great successes before where administrative data were linked to survey data, with the consent of those people who participated in the survey. Such detailed datasets give researchers a very powerful tool for the analysis social and economic issues which might not so easily be understood when they look at only one dataset, or only survey data. But, at the same time, there are often groups that are not represented in surveys, so surveys alone cannot give us a complete picture of society.

This is where 'big data' in general, and administrative data in particular, can make a difference. When government departments and agencies collect information, they do so for all citizens and businesses. A dataset based on administrative data can, therefore, give a much more accurate picture for researchers to analyze.

John Pullinger, the UK National Statistician, believes that data can help Britain make better decisions. Many countries around the world are already using all kinds of big data to better understand their communities, and the Administrative Data Research Network is one way in which Britain is moving towards the mobilisation of data for the public good.

But while Britain is, in some ways, ahead of the curve, there is a risk that the country will begin to lag behind if it does not succeed in harnessing the opportunities of big data and administrative data research.

It is not without risk. It is important to engage the public and gain public trust without dismissing their fears. It is important to have proper safety measures in place to protect privacy and confidentiality. There must be some ethical and moral consideration about the research purpose – just because something can be done, doesn't mean it should be done - this is why the ADRN requires projects to receive favourable ethical review before they can go ahead and access data.

The Administrative Data Research Network has taken all this in consideration from its foundation. The Network has complex processes in place to protect the data, train researchers and guarantee privacy and confidentiality. All research proposals must go through an independent Approvals Panel and can only be accepted if they pass ethical review.

Administrative and big data can be analysed and provide solid evidence for the evaluation of policies, and make it possible for the government to make decisions based on facts, rather than ideology. This, of course, can only benefit society at large.

Big data can be a game changer. But Britain has a lot of catching up to do, in many different areas, before it can really benefit.

View the panel discussion:

Read the evening's programme (PDF)

Read more about the Digital Economy Bill, which will make the government sharing of data for research possible.


Page last updated: 05/05/2017