events archive

Big Data, Big Brother?

A Battle of Ideas debate at the Imagine Festival.

6:00pm, Thursday 11 June 2015, Imovation Centre, Transport Systems Catapult, Milton Keynes

After the successful experiment by Transport for London (TfL) in using Big Data to manage the crowds during the 2012 Olympics, there is considerable international interest in how data analytics’ insights can be deployed on a mass scale. The potential benefits for mobility are enormous - offering detailed information about commuting habits, assessing the most vital areas of improvement or development and even being able to avert congestion in real time.

Smart tracking already enables Melbourne’s tram network to radically alter routes and services swiftly in response to problems on the track. Some want to go even further, with trials in Brazil suggesting monitoring mobile phones would provide insights into road infrastructure that go far beyond traditional models. As IBM’s Deepak Advani argues, Big Data provides the answer to the infrastructural headaches of twenty-first century mega-cities, which are ‘becoming simply too big, complex and popular for humans to maintain.’

Yet while planners are desperate for accurate information, not all are convinced Big Data’s benefits outstrip the risks. Commuters may have largely come to accept their Oyster Card usage being monitored and collated by TfL, the prospect of data-sharers logging our every movement raises numerous trust, security and privacy issues. Even if we can ensure having ‘Big Data without Big Brother’, as many maintain, there is scepticism that policymakers could resist the potential for more seemingly benign mission creep. Why not nudge people to take a healthy walk rather than the quickest route, for example?

There are also serious questions to be asked not just about how the data is collected, but how it is used. It is argued by some that observing transport patterns, no matter how sophisticated the method, cannot necessarily explain them nor offer an obvious guide to the future. Who could predict Uber would create not only a new market of passengers but also taxi drivers? Others are concerned that a fixation with the data can distract from the bigger picture, offering the ability to manage problems rather than find radical solutions. Big Data may have smoothed the service during the Olympics, but it would have been useless without the investment and will to keep the Underground moving.

Should we question the hype around Big Data? Is it really true that the benefits of Big Data outweigh the dangers? Should we place limits on data collection to protect individual liberties? Even in areas where data is put to benign use, could over-reliance on algorithms impede the process of human judgement? Is it time to recognise the limitations of Big Data and put the stats in their place?


Sandy Starr
communications officer, Progress Educational Trust; webmaster of BioNews; has consulted and spoken on technology and regulation for UNESCO, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the European Commission project RightsWatch

Stephen Pattison
vice-president, public affairs, ARM Holdings; former head of international business development at Dyson and CEO of International Chamber of Commerce

Dr Susan Grant-Muller
Institute for Transport Studies, University of Leeds; co-investigator to the University of Leeds Consumer Data Research Centre

Dr Paul Zanelli
chief technical officer, Transport Systems Catapult

Marion Oswald
senior fellow, lecturer in law and head of the Centre for Information Rights, University of Winchester; has worked extensively in the fields of data protection, freedom of information and information technology.

Claire Fox, Director, Academy of Ideas; convenor Battle of Ideas festival; panellist, BBC Radio 4’s Moral Maze