The UK is leading the way in becoming a digital economy but must make sure personal data is only being shared “for the greater good”, according to an influential technology entrepreneur.
The benefits of collecting vast amounts of data are only just being understood and more controls are needed when personal information is affected, according to Edwina Dunn, founder of the analytics firm Dunnhumby, which developed Tesco’s Clubcard.
The businesswoman, who is also chief executive of customer analytics company Starcount, said that when it comes to big data, we have only just “scratched the surface of what can be done” but she acknowledged there is “concern and worry about personal data”.
“As technology and algorithms become more powerful, many different data sources will link together to improve our lives in ways we have yet to fully predict,” Ms Dunn said during the opening of a big data exhibition at the Science Museum in London.
“Where data becomes personal, we need much more control. How do we feel about cross-linking what we eat from our shopping basket or smart fridge to our exercise regime, wearable device and health records? It might be able to recommend better exercise regimes or warn us of excess. Maybe you will like this and maybe you won’t, but how will insurers view this data and how do we ensure our sharing of that data is for the greater good, for the collective advantage … What we don’t want is our personal data being used without our permission because it impacts our lives so significantly.”
Big data will reshape our society “in many different ways”, Ms Dunn added, but it has already improved our “lives and businesses, from travel patterns in Oyster cards to our own DNA”. It also has the potential to improve healthcare and help people recover from illness.
“We want health data to be shared but we want it shared anonymously, we want it to improve lives and we want to work on the ethicacy of drugs and appropriateness of care,” she said.
Sofia Olhede, professor of statistics and computer science at University College London, acknowledged public fears over big data but pointed to the “huge improvements in our lives, from efficient internet searches to discovery in science and medicine enabled by using big data”.
“Most countries have laws to prevent breaches of an individual’s privacy. As our way of manipulating data improves, then you can learn more from it than previously thought,” she said. “So, for transport companies, they can see how people use their network and ease congestion. The people themselves can also avoid routes that are very busy, thanks to big data.
“In healthcare, large amounts of data really help. If a condition is rare, you need lots of data to know what’s going on and find the best way of treating it.
“However, as analytics improve, you could also learn more from data than was previously thought; this in turn raises privacy concerns. These two aspects need to be balanced: the common goof versus the rights of the individual.”
The exhibition features facial recognition software that can reveal your gender, mood and age
Jonathan Newby, Deputy Director and Chief Operating Officer at Science Museum Group, hailed identifying patterns in big data as “the backbone of the new information age … creating smarter cities, personalised services and ever more efficient uses of resources in almost every field”.
As we head towards a more digital future, more training and education will be needed to fill newly created jobs that have never existed before. Science and mathematics will be vital in the new technological age, Ms Dunn said.
“Insights from data suggest a very exciting future and the UK is leading the way in becoming a digital economy. But this demands new skills, more mathematics and science education and many new job opportunities. These are jobs that didn’t exist as little as 10 years ago, probably five years ago, and many of them are probably new this year.”
The Science Museum exhibition, entitled Our Lives in Data, is part-sponsored by Microsoft and looks how data is being used to benefit our daily lives and help science make new discoveries. The museum, which welcomed more than 3.3 million visitors in 2015, will showcase exhibits featuring facial recognition software, a modern DNA sequencer and how data is being used to help transportation across the capital.
Liam Kelly, General Manager of Developer Experience at Microsoft UK, said: “We are excited by the opportunities that connected devices, cloud computing and machine learning bring to scientific discovery. This fundamentally changes our ability to read and interpret the underlying story behind data. Those who develop these new skills will be the drivers of the next wave of innovation this generation.”
It comes just days after Microsoft unveiled a degree course on data science in response to “the exponential amounts of data being captured and analysed”. Participants will be taught skills via online courses and workshops, and will eventually receive a Microsoft Professional Degree in data science.