UEA events analyse the big data on climate change, health and social care, privacy

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Big data is both brimming with benefits and fraught with potential problems, according to researchers presenting a public lecture series at the University of East Anglia (UEA).

The Big Data, Big Questions series starts at 6 pm today with a panel discussion called 'Approaches to big data; Climate change, health care, and privacy.' Chaired by the Rt Hon Charles Clarke, visiting professor of politics at UEA, this inaugural event includes presentations from Prof Phil Jones from UEA's Climatic Research Unit, Prof Ruth Hancock from the Norwich Medical School and Dr Paul Bernal from UEA's School of Law.

Big data – or data that is "vast, complex and difficult to analyse" – can be used to improve health and social care, support vulnerable people and map access to green spaces, said Prof Hancock, a social care economics expert. Prof Jones will discuss using big data to determine how the climate might change in future.

But big data is a privacy protection minefield, according to data privacy expert Dr Bernal. Even if big data isn't in the wrong hands, "many people are operating out of ignorance and as a result they make mistakes," he said.

Dr Bernal said: "Many of the people working with big data don't even think there is a privacy issue. I will be presenting a number of examples that demonstrate how the problems arise, whether it's concerning big data used by advertisers to target consumers, or how it's being used by political parties and government agencies for questionable and possibly even malign purposes.

"I'm going to argue that big data analysis can be as intrusive as the surveillance done by the NSA or GCHQ, and it's qualitatively similar. It may be done for different purposes, but the intrusion is the same."

Dr Bernal's segment of the discussion will clarify different kinds of data, including big, small, anonymised, de-identified, private and personal data, and will debate what is legal, ethical or "a good idea." Dr Bernal will illustrate the issues using six recent, real-world examples, such as Facebook's secret 'mood experiment' and the so-called 'Labour purge.'

The series of public lectures at UEA continues on Wednesday, November 4, with Tom Baker of BT Global Services discussing 'Digital data and public services in the smart city.' Four other public lectures will follow through the end of the year.

The Big Data, Big Questions lecture series is held on behalf of the Business and Local Government Data Research Centre, a collaboration between the Universities of East Anglia, Essex, Kent and LSE that aims to help analysts and researchers use data more effectively. The centre forms a key part of the Economic and Social Research Council's (ESRC) Big Data Network.

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