Ireland must ensure harvested data is being used responsibly

As a leader in the research, we must take the lead when it comes to big data ethics

There is justifiable paranoia about the potential for our data to be used against us

There is justifiable paranoia about the potential for our data to be used against us

 

There is growing public unease about requests for PPS numbers from public bodies such as Irish Water and the Department of Education.

We the public know that information about us – what we eat, where we shop, how we travel – is a tradable commodity that should not be surrendered lightly. There is also justifiable paranoia about the potential for our data to be used against us.

Meanwhile big data is reaching into every corner of our lives from business to government, healthcare to conversation. And yet the very smallholders providing the raw material for big data can’t get a handle on what it means. This is a recipe for mistrust that has informed much public discussion of big data so far. Big data = Big Brother.

2015 should be the year that the conversation changes. Big data is about information, but pitifully little real information makes it into public discussion on the subject. Let’s start with the basics. What is big data?

Purchases logged

Now it’s all recorded. Your photos are in the cloud, the news stories you click are registered, your purchases logged against your supermarket loyalty card, your email conversation saved by Google or Yahoo. You, and billions of others going about their business. That’s big data and it’s growing every second.

Businesses and governments know that if they can tap into this new raw material and make decisions based on it, the world will change. Data analytics is a massive global research effort aimed at taking the guesswork out of everything from hospital waiting lists to public transport planning to advertising.

Ireland is a global leader in data analytics research. The SFI-funded Insight Centre for Data Analytics – a collaboration of more than 300 data scientists – is a collaboration on a scale that you would be hard pushed to find in research centres elsewhere in the world. As a leader in the research, we must also take the lead when it comes to the ethics of big data.

Next month in Brussels lead researchers from Insight will state the case for a global ‘Magna Carta for Data’ – a Bill of Rights to guide us on how data should be handled with respect to both individual freedom and public interest.

Currently the balance power is with those collecting and using the data. Legislators are scrambling to address this but they risk going too far and stunting progress. If data is so thoroughly protected that it can’t be used then we are squandering a huge opportunity.

Already we are seeing legislation at EU level, brought in as a response to personal privacy intrusions, which has the potential to slow down or stop critical data research in health and other areas.

We must protect the smallholders, the individuals and companies generating the data in the first place, while at the same time enabling data to be harvested and used responsibly. We need a charter that lays out the rights of the originators of data and those who seek to use it.

In drawing up such a charter we must ask the questions that are raised in this new sphere of data ethics.

What does it mean to ‘own’ data? Are our current definitions of property sufficient to cover this new resource?

At the moment, so many internet services are ‘free’, but we offer up our data as capital. What if ownership of data is returned to the individual? Will it change the way we interact with digital companies? What sort of privacy can individuals expect to maintain in an era of big data? Will there be any information they can reasonably expect to be off-limits?

Tough questions

These are tough questions but we must tackle them.

The Digital Revolution may have a bigger global economic impact than that of the Industrial Revolution. Ireland has pushed its way to the forefront of the big data age. Now Ireland must lead the way in ensuring that democracy and human rights are not pushed aside in the rush to capitalise on this vast new resource.

Oliver Daniels is chief executive of the Insight Centre for Data Analytics

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