The growing ability of computers to analyse huge volumes of data, known as “Big Data,” will change the way businesses are run and the way decisions are made, driving productivity gains, new business models and economic growth. “The amazing thing about Big Data is not the sheer volume, but what we can do with it,” says Neelie Kroes, European Commission Vice President in charge of the Digital Agenda.
But robust data privacy and cybersecurity rules are needed to encourage companies to invest in Big Data applications, adds Kroes.
There are now six megabytes of data for every person on the planet. “It’s just incredible; outside of the imagination,” says Kroes. And now advances in machine learning, data mining, visualisation and other analytics are making it possible to tame, manipulate and interrogate this torrent, opening up an array of opportunities to drive economic growth, in the formation of digital start-ups, the development of new products and services, the ability to banish silos and the extract more value from dwindling public sector budgets, and in job creation.
Neelie Kroes, European Commission Vice President in charge of the Digital Agenda
While knowledge is the engine of the economy, Big Data is its fuel – Kroes has called Big Data ‘the new oil.’ For traditional industries and the services sector Big Data analytics will create new opportunities. For the public sector they offer a route to service improvement and transparency. In science, opening up data to share, compare and discover, is spurring the development of whole new fields of research.
Meanwhile for citizens the information made available through the Big Data movement drives empowerment. “We are at the start of a paradigm shift,” Kroes believes. Big Data will usher in new business models and more efficient management processes. For example, on factory production lines wireless sensors can now be used to monitor performance and detect a problem with equipment before it causes damage or downtime. Such continuous remote monitoring shows benefits over periodic manual observations, but is still not the norm in industrial production, Kroes notes.
Removing obstacles to Big Data
While it may not be a huge leap in technological terms to go from remote monitoring of the performance of machines to the remote monitoring of the health of humans, there is a vast chasm in terms of data privacy. This highlights the need for sensitively calibrated data protection rules to protect rights and privacy, and at the same time allow the potential of the information explosion to be fully exploited.
Europe needs to get new data protection rules agreed and in place as soon as possible, creating a single market for data to boost competitiveness on the global scene. “We can’t lose time; we are talking about our prosperity,” says Kroes.
The European Commission is taking steps to remove obstacles to the use of Big Data, through legislation, standards setting and in its R&D programmes. Proposed new data protection rules set out by the Commission are under discussion in the European Parliament currently. The sensitivity of this issue is perhaps reflected in the fact that 3,999 amendments have been made by MEPs, the highest number of amendments ever tabled to a single legislative file in Parliament.
Hand-in-hand with new data protection legislation, the Commission wants to put in place a new cyber security strategy to ensure personal data, now a highly valuable asset, is properly protected. The currency of the new digital economy is data, and like any currency it depends on a precious commodity: trust. Only if consumers trust their data is well protected will they continue to entrust businesses and authorities with it, buying online and accepting new product developments and services.
However trust is waning, with 92 per cent of Europeans saying they are concerned about mobile apps collecting data without their consent, while 89 per cent say they should be informed when the data on their smartphone is shared with a third party.
European citizens are also increasingly worried about cybercrime. According to a 2012 Eurobarometer survey, 74 per cent of respondents believed that the risk of becoming a victim of cybercrime had gone up over the past year.
This growing lack of trust points to the need for a modern set of data protection rules and greater cyber-security resilience, to get more people using more online services, and generating growth for companies. People will also be more confident to entrust their data to public administrations.
The existing EU Data Protection law is long overdue an update, as it dates back to 1995 before the Internet took off. And, inevitably, this law is enforced differently from one member state to another, creating expensive bureaucratic obstacles for companies moving information across borders. Getting rid of this fragmentation with a new single EU data protection law will save €2.3 million a year, according to Commission estimates.
Alongside harmonised rules for how data is handled, the Commission is pushing for standards to allow the interoperability and integration of data.
These standards will be enshrined in research funded by the European Union, while at the same time the Commission will continue to promote open data, to make sure that the outputs of all research projects are freely available. In Framework Programme 7, an average €76 million per annum has been devoted open data, and the upcoming Horizon 2020 R&D programme will continue this push. This will enable citizens, “to see the results they paid for through tax money,” says Kroes.
Of course, Europe is not alone in sensing the economic potential of Big Data. “There’s a great competitive market out there,” Kroes says. “I’m positive about the competition, it helps our digital economy and gives us a much needed boost at a time of crisis.” But it also underlines the importance of getting well-balanced regulation and robust standards in place. “We need to get it right: we are in a hurry,” Kroes concluded.
This article is based on the keynote address Neelie Kroes gave at the Science|Business event, Smarter Data for Europe, on 23 May.