Ireland leads the way on Europe’s ‘Magna Carta’ for big data

Big data may have answers to everything from avoiding traffic to reducing hospital waiting lists


In the film Moneyball (based on the nonfiction book), Brad Pitt plays baseball manager Billy Beane, who helps to turn around the fortunes of his team by analysing data about the game.

But sport is not the only place where crunching the numbers can provide answers. “Big data” has become a term to describe how we can collect and analyse enormous amounts of information to guide decisions.

Big means big

Ireland is on the case: the Insight Centre for Data Analytics is one of the largest research centres in Europe for big data.

“Big data, as the name suggests, typically means a large quantity of information, generated at very high velocity, and there is no shortage of that,” says Prof Barry O’Sullivan, who directs Insight at University College Cork.

Much of the information for big data logging your way through the day comes from sensors, from cameras and smartphones and, of course, from the internet. “We are talking about vast quantities of information that no human being could ever manage to process,” says O’Sullivan.

This is where computers come in. Combined with human expertise, they can help expertly dig into sections of data and, hopefully, make systems work more effectively.

“Data analytics is all about extracting meaningful correlations from data and using those to predict something in the future,” says O’Sullivan.

“So if the data tells you there is a particular pattern of traffic, then perhaps you can predict when there is going to be a traffic jam and plan accordingly. You can also analyse data to predict illness: even looking at the kinds of symptoms people are searching for online can help you track outbreaks of disease.”

O’Sullivan is particularly interested in using data to cut down on waiting lists in hospitals, so people are not waiting months or years to get an appointment to see a doctor. “By understanding the demand of the health service and how changes can affect the service – by analysing the data – we can perhaps come up with ways to get patients seeing doctors more quickly,” he says.

Serious questions

While it is exciting to discover signals in the data about people’s behaviours or what is likely to happen, that also raises serious questions.

“Using a person’s smartphone and smart wearable devices, we can predict how likely it is that the person will suffer an illness such as arthritis,” says O’Sullivan. “But what should we be doing with that information?”

Collecting data from people also raises concerns about privacy, he says.

“The frontier between data analytics and data privacy hasn’t been properly explored, and at Insight we want to get people talking about it.

“So we are leading a European initiative on a ‘Magna Carta for Data’, a document that will set down the basic rights of data users and creators and scientists, so that individual citizens can understand the consequences of sharing their data.”

Meanwhile, O’Sullivan advises everyone to become more aware of the data they share online.

“When you are [sharing] photographs, are these geotagged. Can people know your location?” he asks. “This is something you might want to think about.”

Science Foundation Ireland funds the Insight Centre