The era of “big data analytics”

While it may sound like a buzzphrase, there’s no denying that we are well and truly in the era of big data analytics. An ever-increasing portion of our daily lives, business and social relations are mediated by digital platforms and computational processes. The implications of these changes are both dramatic and subtle, and we are still only beginning to understand them.

From recruitment to advertising, risk assessment or public health, organisations big and small are hearing the klaxon of big data and wondering how to respond to its opportunities and threats. Being able to use data to identify patterns, classify the unknown, and predict the future, is a tantalising prospect. But understanding what data can tell us and what it can’t – sorting the hopeful from the hubristic – is a difficult but necessary endeavour.

Most of the buzz around data has been about what it can do to improve organisations’ existing practices. For instance, banks are able to build more complex risk models with their vast database of customer behaviour. This is clearly an important strand. But until recently, less has been said about how all this data serves the needs and goals of ordinary people. In fact, the place of the individual in all this has begun to look a little under threat. Many people fear that ubiquitous data collection and profiling will only undermine their autonomy, individuality and social solidarity.

This is beginning to change, however, with a slew of new applications and initiatives designed to empower people to control their own data, and use it to serve their own purposes. Just as organisations need to sift through masses of information in order to make good decisions, so do individuals. A new wave of decision support services combine information about the individual such as their circumstances, behaviour, values and preferences, with information about the world `out there’, such as pricing structures, product features, peer reviews, impartial ratings and environmental conditions, crunching these two categories of data to arrive at a personal recommendation. And just as businesses have tools to manage their relationships with customers (such as Customer Relationship Management software), customers might also want to manage their relationships with brands; granting access to those they trust and revoking it from those they don’t. In this scenario, privacy is a by-product of a more consensual and efficient relationship between individuals and organisations.

This new market for personal information management services is in its infancy, but it could be worth around £16.5 in the UK alone. It is just one of the many trends arising from the era of big data analytics, with the potential to radically change business and society. We’ll be discussing these issues and more at the Web Science Institute’s upcoming event, Privacy and Trust in the Era of Big Data Analytics.

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