Why the UK is playing catch-up with Big Data

UK government squanders Big Data opportunity
UK government squanders Big Data opportunity

UK ‘likes’ foreign big data technology, ‘fails’ on digital skills & infrastructure

Big data is a UK success story, says the Commons Select Committee’s own propaganda pipe (otherwise known as the parliament.uk blog). In a story referencing a new report by the UK Science and Technology Committee, the claim is that more than 58,000 jobs could be created and £216 billion could be contributed to our economy (2.3 percent of GDP) over a five-year period.

Is Big Data really a UK success story? Well, frankly no it’s not. The development of Big Data analytics techniques, tools and platforms mainly stem from the US and Silicon Valley.

With a few exceptional central European stars (yes, we do mean SAP, Software AG and the like), the UK’s Big Data prowess – if it has one – comes merely out of the implementation of these non-UK originated technologies.

Oh, was that what you meant?

Perhaps that was what the bureaucracy-bloggers behind this communiqué were trying to say in the first place? The UK is good at adopting foreign innovations and applying them to its own territory. It’s true to say — McDonalds, Budweiser and Spam have all made a pretty good land grab on British soil.

But it’s not all good news according to the tea and biscuit-hungry civil servants who wrote this missive. The Commons Select Committee warns that existing data is nowhere near being fully exploited. In a somewhat granular and worryingly specific claim, the committee warns that UK companies are analysing just 12 percent of their data.

You say data-phobe, I say tomato

“If ‘data-phobe’ businesses made good use of their data they could increase UK productivity by 3 percent,” is the assertion. Surely they meant to say ‘data-phobic’, but whatever… the call to action is for the government to make its databases more ‘open’ and share them with businesses.

Quite whether the UK should ‘open up’ in this way and at the same time also adopt ID cards (it should, by the way), leave Europe (too big an issue to comment on) and abolish cottage cheese (that’s a yes, obviously) have yet to be fully analysed. What the committee will attest to though is that we’re in a Big Data revolution and we need action on Big Data digital skills and infrastructure.

“[We also need action on] people being able to give their informed consent for how their personal data is used,” said the government.

While there is acknowledgment here from government that personal data is only a small proportion of Big Data, given the scale and pace of data gathering and sharing, distrust arising from concerns about privacy and security is arguably well founded. This issue must be resolved by industry and government if the full value of big data is to be realised, the Committee warn.

Also read: IT managers excited by IoT, see Big Data challenges

De-anonymising data

Nicola Blackwood MP, Chair of the Committee, has said that a ‘Council of Data Ethics’ should be created to explicitly address these consent and trust issues head on.

“And the government must signal that it is serious about protecting people’s privacy by making the identifying of individuals by de-anonymising data a criminal offence,” said Blackwood.

The committee has warned that the digital skills gap is approaching crisis levels, and that this not only has economic implications but also puts the quality and security of this data at risk.

Internet of Business discussed this story with Dave Kuenzel in his role as VP & GM for Teradata Government Systems, LLC. Speaking to our editorial team directly, Kuenzel openly stated that:

“Government agencies [around the world] continue to look for creative and cost-effective ways to benefit from and leverage Big Data — and, subsequently, integrate Big Data sets into a multi-structured data ecosystem.”

Where government Big Data helps the people

This action, when executed successfully says Kuenzel, thereby creates new analytic capabilities that provide important new insights of tangible value. These insights could include fraud identification, tax compliance, logistics and transportation efficiencies, healthcare management, homeland security and cyber-security.

Kuenzel continued: “However, as agencies attempt to create these new capabilities in-house, they are confronted with challenges, including the transition from conventional analytic methods using data silos — to incorporating change management and data integration models necessary to truly adopt a Big Data operational enterprise.”

With the UK government story in front of mind, Kuenzel has said that quite often, their biggest challenge is how to get started in a way that leverages rapid and effective analysis and produces real results — with limited spending capabilities and recruiting hard-to-find technical expertise.

Also read: Making sense of IoT with Big Data analytics

Layered privacy notices

The committee’s final words on this matter include an acceptance of the fact that we need to give citizens greater control in their data transactions by using simple and ‘layered privacy notices’, and allowing the consumer to decide exactly how far they are willing to trust each data-holder.

So where did we get to here and can we list out the concrete facts?

Blackwood is willing to be real (or more real than some) and say that the UK has a digital skills crisis in terms of Big Data implementation.

The public-private data privacy debate could get nasty, but layered privacy could well be an important stepping-stone. The Data Protection Act will need to be rewritten several times and de-anonymising data is very naughty. A new Council of Data Ethics may emerge.

The UK government will continue to tell us that the country is a ‘tech leader’, whatever that really means — and ultimately, we still really love technology from America and Germany as much as we love their beer.


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I am a technology journalist with over two decades of press experience. Primarily I work as a news analysis writer dedicated to a software application development ‘beat’; but, in a fluid media world, I am also an analyst, technology evangelist and content consultant. As the previously narrow discipline of programming now extends across a wider transept of the enterprise IT landscape, my own editorial purview has also broadened. I have spent much of the last ten years also focusing on open source, data analytics and intelligence, cloud computing, mobile devices and data management. I have an extensive background in communications starting in print media, newspapers and also television. If anything, this gives me enough man-hours of cynical world-weary experience to separate the spin from the substance, even when the products are shiny and new.