Big data – more than you want to know (Blue Wings 9/2017)


Big data is one of those buzzwords that you may have heard mentioned over the past few years. If you are like me, you will have realised that it is important, but you may not have fully understood its meaning.

I have good news.

Writer, comedian, and broadcaster Timandra Harkness’ latest book, Big Data – does size matter? (2016, Bloomsbury), is a great reference for us social scientists who struggle to understand the complex world of data.

The simplest definition of big data can be found on Google, the biggest data collector of all. According to the almighty search-engine, big data is “extremely large data sets that may be analysed computationally to reveal patterns, trends, and associations, especially relating to human behaviour and interactions.”

We all provide big data with almost everything we do. You are most probably reading this on a Finnair flight, which you booked online. Through your mobile phone you will have revealed your preferred seat, favourite food, mode of transport, and travel destination. As you leave the plane you might jump into a taxi, which takes you to your favourite hotel. All registered on the net. You will probably post a picture or tell a story on your favourite social media. All before going for a run and recording it on your health app.

And naturally, you will be listening to your favourite music after watching a movie online, before booking a restaurant which was recommended on Trip Advisor. You can see where I’m going with this.

It’s a bit creepy, but big data knows where you are, where you have been, who your friends are, what makes you angry, who is falling in love with you, your favourite food and so much more. As a matter of fact, big data might just know you better than you know yourself.

Now, big data is, of course, great for business. It makes it easy to collect data and figure out consumer preferences and trends. It is equally great for science. By tracking disease patterns and analysing DNA and gene registers, scientists will be able to find cures.

This is truly exciting, but like any major change, it has its downside – most of which is linked to privacy. Unless you want to isolate yourself from society, it will be very difficult to stop being a provider of big data.

One of the things you can do is to decide what you want to keep private and from whom.

In any case you might want to reflect before the next time you type in your personal details in an online survey. Ask yourself who you are sharing the information with – and why.

Having read Harkness’ book helped me to understand the meaning of big data. I will probably not change my online habits radically, but at least I know what is happening with all the data that I voluntarily share.