Dad, political sociologist, local councillor, drummer from Malta

Monday, April 17, 2017

Big Data, Big Issues

Big data is a new term in the world of policymaking. It is at once all over the place yet invisible. Indeed, many people have probably never heard of it.
A cursory search for the meaning of big data reveals that this refers to data that is too big to be processed through traditional methods. This data can be used to analyse human behaviour and policy processes, and can also be useful to predict, to increase efficiency, and to innovate.
Both individuals and organisations can benefit from big data through personalised services, networked-policymaking, online consultation, prevention of terrorist attacks and traffic management, to name a few.
The network societies in which we live are subject to all forms of big data. Human beings interact on the Internet to buy products, to communicate with friends, to seek government services, to entertain themselves, and in a myriad of other ways. In turn, such behaviour is connected like a capillary, and big data is produced.
In practical terms: did you ever wonder why adverts which pop up on your computer or smartphone are usually related to your tastes? For example, I buy a lot of books, so I frequently get adverts from booksellers. Similarly, Joseph Muscat’s face was all over the Maltese online-sphere before the 2013 general election. And security agencies usually show great interest in the online activity of suspected terrorists.
These are not coincidences. These are produced through analytics, a key element of big data. Our digital footprint provides all sorts of data which can be used by government agencies, private companies, financial institutions and search engines. They might want to sell us products which satisfy our tastes, make sure that our behaviour conforms with legislation, or verify whether new policies may be effective.
The new world of big data is generating great interest in the social sciences. Some see it as a tool of democratisation and evidence-based policymaking. Others see it as Orwell’s 1984 in a 21st century setting.
In this regard, a group of sociologists from the University of Stanford recently announced that online research studies can help us understand better the way how people interact with each other and with social structures. Analysis of online behaviour can also show how and why people trust each other.
Some examples come to mind. Why do some people give more importance to ‘fake’ news than to the established media? Why do some online providers of services win customers, while others fail miserably? Why are some bloggers trusted more than certain government agencies? Why do some people create fake profiles, and why are many people increasingly willing to reveal private information on the social media?
The big data issue is also being given importance by the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC), which represents different civil society interests across the EU.
The EESC recently published a study which focused on the ethical and social implications of big data. Its findings and recommendations should be of great interest to policymakers.
The study highlights the benefits of big data but also emphasises risks on individuals such as breaches of privacy and surveillance. When interacting online, we might be unintentionally giving away information to third parties.
Hence, the EESC is recommending a European web portal which informs citizens as to what personal data they have given in exchange for what services. Besides, a European digital service may be created which certifies companies for ethical data protection practices. In turn, this could win trust of consumers and be used as a positive criterion for public procurement by government agencies.
Another recommendation by the EESC deals with healthcare. Here, citizens would be able to provide information to healthcare institutions such as hospitals and universities which will then be anonymised and used for better health services.
The EESC is also recommending increased digital education on big data so that citizens can be better informed about their online rights and responsibilities.
In this regard, it is positive to note that a variety of Maltese institutions are showing increased interest and activity on such education and practices. This area is ripe for political consensus.

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