Big Data: Big Issues?

April 30, 2013

As part of ‘Big Data Week 2013’ last week (a global festival involving over 25 cities), the BIG Innovation Centre and ESRC hosted a workshop seminar focussed on the regulatory constraints that are hindering the development of Big Data initiatives in the UK. To the frustration of some of the panellists, of which I was one, much of the discussion and the interests of the audience related primarily to privacy concerns. That said, Will Hutton, the Chair of the Panel, managed to encourage the audience to participate and there was an encouraging debate around the more general regulatory concerns associated with Big Data.

Concerns about privacy seem to be right at the heart of suspicions about the impact of Big Data, although there was a counter-argument raised in a question from the audience that in a ‘small data’ environment, such as a village, everyone knew everything about everyone in any case. The questioner considered that a Big Data environment was akin to a large city where anonymity results from the scale of the city. I’m not sure that the analogy holds, due to the accessibility of digital information. When information was hidden away in dusty paper files, there was privacy through the inaccessibility of data, but with digital information the data can be retrieved in a millisecond.

The audience seemed divided on whether privacy is a social construct or a human right. My view is that privacy is a social construct but that important rights should be and are associated with that social construct, even if what we regard as being private may vary over time. It may well be that the view of privacy as an inalienable human right, as held by some privacy campaigners, may stifle the debate over the nature and scope of rights of privacy. If privacy is this form of right then it is harder to question and debate and hence to determine the appropriate level of privacy in particular situations.

Irrespective of these quasi-philosophical questions, the BIG Innovation Centre’s question on the regulatory constraints on the development of Big Data is worthwhile developing. They are conducting a study on the practical constraints that are hindering Big Data developments. This ought to be helpful to Big Data initiatives and should identify the real issues. Tom Heath from the Open Data Institute commented that the complexity and lack of clarity in the law is a particular difficulty in the data field. He mentioned the Database Right in particular as a particularly complex area of law. This must also be one of the more obscure pieces of law which could well do with reform (or possibly abolition).

These may be issues that the SCL should engage with in the Policy Forum and the Annual Conference later in the year. If people would like to contribute to the debate, let me know ( or contact Caroline Gould (the new SCL General Manager: