What’s the big idea?

Yet another ‘big’ paper making ‘big’ things up around the opportunities from ‘big’ data. This time from the right-of-centre Policy Exchange who should realise that ‘big’ data ultimately brings along big government. “The Big Data Opportunity: Making government faster, smarter and more personal” (PDF, 36 pages, 1.21 Mb) is written by Chris Yiu.

There is little mention in the report of local government, which is the hard/chalk/coal face of government to the majority of the population and whilst has minimal control over its budgets thanks to ‘big’ central government, has the most to offer in terms of accountability, local democracy and the effect on people’s lives. Page 7 does highlight the requirement “that ensuring that public sector leaders and policymakers are literate in the scientific method and confident combining big data with sound judgment”, which would be something of a novelty given the tendency of politicians and their puppets to adjust data to their needs – one has only to consider WMD for a start! This is repeated on page 9 “Embracing the big data opportunity will take leadership and ethical integrity of the highest order”, to which I would ask for some real-life demonstration of it first. In also think there’s something contrary in an economist talking about ‘scientific method’.

In a similar manner, those given access to the data are expected to respect privacy, another new experience for those governing – I doubt if any citizen of this country, given the low moral compass of their leaders, would trust any with more information than they have to. This is an accepted fact when the population happily reveal to Facebook and Google data that they’d resist handing over to government. The paper, on page 13, then goes on to present data matching as an alternative to the National Identification card, as if we didn’t have legislation that clearly prevents that type of exercise (unless crime is indicated) – this is more Big Brother than big data, whatever the benefits. The author then goes on to make a number of proposals for the use of big data, along with a stylised desktop for airport management. Some of the ideas will clearly be constrained by existing legislation and data quality, but anyone who has dealt with the HMRC and their ‘credit reference agency’ will know the quality of the data, and the HMRC’s seemingly singular inability to join up their own house let alone share data with others!

As to the use of data mining to identify fraud – a quick read of The Plot Against the NHS by Colin Leys & Stewart Player would indicate that the vulnerability to fraud comes greatest when attempts to marketize services are made, this will apply to all government service not just health. A current example is the investigations being done around A4E. The issue here is not big data but the structuration of services and policy in such a manner that no auditor has the opportunity to smell the rats as they surface. The more complex systems are made, the increased likelihood of fraud and error.

Page 29 repeats the wishful mantra again – “Governments should have the utmost respect for civil liberties – and citizens themselves can and must hold their government to the highest ethical and moral standards”. Citizens should be able to trust government but recent history indicates a majority of politicians can’t be even trusted to do their own expense claims, let alone not mix with the wrong sort of journalist.

I suggest the ‘think-tank’, like some many of their brethren, get some real world experience before indulging their fantasies on the rest of us.

Cynical summary – The report is ‘sponsored’ by EMC Corporation, the recent destination of a former government CIO and a company whom I would imagine make a lot of money out of government accumulating big data.

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