Big Data - the power to transform

Written by Pilar del Castillo Vera on 22 October 2014 in Opinion

Big data has the potential to completely transform our economy, and public bodies need to bolt-on additional capacity to deal with the change, argues Pilar del Castillo Vera.

Big data has the potential to completely transform our economy, boosting growth and competitiveness. Pilar del Castillo Vera explains why the EU must act now.

Today's hyper connected world is producing data at a startling rate, and it doesn't look like things will be slowing down any time soon.

Every minute, the world generates 1.7 million billion bytes of data.This is equal to 360,000 DVDs. It works out at over six megabytes of data per person, every day.

Although data analytics are nothing new, this massive amount of data is so diverse and moves with such velocity that traditional data capture and analysis is just not good enough anymore. This relatively new phenomenon is what is commonly referred to as 'big data'.

The data sector is growing by 40 per cent each year, seven times quicker than the overall information and communication market. According to the European commission, businesses that base their decision making process on knowledge generated from data see a five to six per cent increase in productivity.

Looking beyond the business world, other sectors could also benefit from big data. It has the potential to transform a range of public services including transport planning, healthcare and disease control.

There is no doubt that having data regarding people's actual behaviour, rather than simply going on what people say they do, produces valuable information.

This type of knowledge is used to better tailor transport provision, or to predict the spread of infectious diseases, among other things.

Yet there are no opportunities without challenges. In order to seize all the potential that big data offers, companies and public administrations will have to acquire the necessary data processing capacity. This includes qualified staff.

Another problem which needs to be addressed is the threat to personal privacy. People will refuse to share their data, and businesses will not know what data to share, or even how to share it. Much like eCommerce, online payments and recent internet developments such as cloud computing, it's all about trust.

One of the major challenges of the big data era is how to ensure the protection of personal data, especially in an environment in which the value of the information collected derives precisely from how it relates to other data sets.

We already have ways of providing explicit consent to allow its use. However, in our current economy, such information is sometimes used for purposes other than those for which consent was given. In other words, traditional models, such as 'notice and consent', must be fine-tuned to the new paradigm of huge data flows.

When looking to tackle these challenges, we must be aware that there is no single, magical measure that will instantly provide a solution. Nevertheless, there are still some things that we can do.

Steps can be taken in various fields to help build an ecosystem in which big data can contribute to economic growth and help competitiveness thrive. More specifically, these measures should include boosting research on big data and increasing efforts on standardising procedures for anonymising data. We must also make sure that data generated by organisations is easily accessible, in the manner of 'liquid data'.

The EU institutions have already started taking some of these steps. Most recently, the commission and the big data value association signed a memorandum of understanding, thus setting up a public private partnership (PPP). A total of €2.5bn has been set aside for this project.

It has great potential for developing an ideal environment in which to develop future big data opportunities in Europe. The PPP aims to strengthen the foundations for a thriving data driven economy, and support innovation spaces. These will offer secure environments for experimenting with both private and public data.

In conclusion, I believe that big data has huge potential in terms of economic growth and competitiveness.

The EU must take advantage of this as much as much as possible, and there are many different ways of achieving this.

Action must be taken horizontally in almost all sectors, in order to create a favourable environment for the development of big data.

We must not let this new opportunity slip away.

Developments such as cloud computing, internet of things and now big data are a clear example of where the digital era is taking us. It is our responsibility to try and put Europe at the global forefront.

About the author

Pilar del Castillo Vera is parliament's rapporteur on unleashing the potential of cloud computing in Europe

This article was first published on Civil Service World, the sister site of

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