#Guest Contribution: The Big Gathering


Big Data – a game of algorithms; credit: Justin Grimes (CC BY-SA 2.0) bit.ly/1GM6E3H

How are whistleblowers perceived in different countries? Does digitisation lead to surveillance capitalism? Are blogs and social media a catalyst for democratic change in authoritarian states? What does Europe have to say about how cyber conflicts should be tackled? In the lead-up to the re:publica conference and under our Finding Europe heading, we will put out a bi-weekly review of key debates on these and other issues in cooperation with our media partner euro|topics, with voices from the press and websites of Europe. For today we explore how Europe debates the costs and benefits of big data..

Have I walked more than 10,000 steps today? And when was the last time I went for a cancer screening? In future we won't be the only ones to ask such questions: the first health insurance companies are now also planning to start gathering such data on their customers. Europe discusses what big data will cost us and how we can benefit from it.

Last November the insurance group Generali announced plans to become the first large European health insurance company to gather data on the fitness, nutrition and lifestyle of its customers – and recompense them with hefty discounts. An app that documents health checkups and measures sport activity will help it do this. Other insurance companies plan to follow suit. This has set off alarm bells among data protection activists, and the Finnish daily Helsingin Sanomat is likewise dubious about the idea: "Naturally everyone is free to do as they please. For example send a record of how many sit-ups they do, an excel table on their jogging activity and their body mass index to their insurance company. ... In this way at least those who voluntarily pass on their data can receive discounts. And those who don't want to don't get the discounts. ... But far more interesting than dividing people into the health-conscious and the non-health-conscious is the question of what the company can do with all that data."

Farewell to Privacy?

"Big data" is a term used to describe the gathering and analysis of gigantic quantities of data. Data we leave behind us every day in social networks, when we shop, when we do online searches or when we make a phone call. Critics point out above all that no one knows exactly what data is gathered or who has access to it. But big data offers huge potential, the Belgian business paper De Tijd counters: "In the US, flu epidemics are already being pinpointed by examining the amount of times the word 'flu' is googled. Smart phones can warn about traffic jams if they register that you drive the same route at the same time every day. For the first time 'social physics' is possible. And not just in the form of short-term experiments involving a few individuals, but by studying the behaviour of hundreds of thousands of people over an extended period. This also opens up possibilities for organising cities more effectively and intelligently. Couldn't we give up a little privacy for such progress?"

And also for Enrique Dans, a blogger and professor of computer science at Madrid's IE Business School, the advantages of big data outweigh the disadvantages. However he points out that first we need technology that is capable of interpreting the data: "What do we do with the huge quantities of data generated by the sensors on a smart watch, for example? We're already saturated and we only analyse perhaps one percent of it. The solution would be to have other machines interpret the data. Machines that learn are the only chance we have to bring order into the constant flow of data so that it makes any kind of sense."

Combining Big Data and Open Data

But big data can only realise its full potential if a certain prerequisite is fulfilled – which would also incidentally solve the problem of lacking data protection, writes analyst Joel Gurin of New York University in the The Guardian. That prerequisite is governments making their data collections freely accessible to everybody as open data: "Paradoxically, opening up this sensitive data, in a specific and controlled way, may actually make it more secure. ... If we knew more, we could control more. ... Both big data and open data can transform business, government, and society – and a combination of the two is especially potent. Big data gives us unprecedented power to understand, analyse, and ultimately change the world we live in. Open data ensures that power will be shared – and that the world we change will, with luck, become a fairer and more democratic one.

Like Oil for Services

An attempt to combine big data and open data is already under way in Estonia. All government authorities, from job centres to police agencies and public archives, recently started uploading their data onto a web portal. All this data was already available to the general public before the initiative began, but now it is being brought together on this portal. On the web portal Delfi Uuno Vallner, an IT specialist at the Ministry of Economic Affairs, sees above all economic advantages to such a policy:  "Open data is like oil for the services of the private and public sectors. Open data can make our state far more transparent and flexible and give companies new possibilities for creating applications while citizens get better services. Companies can combine the data with other data and use it to develop new services. And across the EU, greater openness and easier access to data held by authorities would generate 40 billion euros a year in profit."


Twenty-six foreign correspondents follow the key debates in Europe and comb through the commentary pages of influential media for the euro|topics international online press review. All the selected opinion pieces are available in German, English and French. The eurotopics press review has been contributing to the formation of a European public sphere since 2005, and has a constantly growing archive of more than 30,000 commentaries. An index of roughly 500 newspapers, online portals and blogs provides broad access to Europe’s media landscape. The journalists’ network n-ost has been producing the daily press review on behalf of the German Federal Agency for Civic Education since 2008.

For more information see www.eurotopics.net