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Europe's need for a little clarity on Big Data

Europe's need for a little clarity on Big Data
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Big Data is one of the new buzzwords being branded around in Brussels as a potential source of breakthroughs in new business and entrepreneurship. Big Data could help us navigate out of the economic doldrums, Big Data could help us overcome disease and genetic disorders, Big Data could help us get around traffic jams, Big Data can help you save money, save time, and save your life. But Big Data – the term used for the large and diverse sets of information held by governments and private companies – has some issues too. The billions of bits of information that are generated every day carry with them big questions about how we share them, with whom, and why.

Those ethical concerns were one of the central themes discussed at the Innovation Forum in Brussels, organised by the European Institute of Innovation & Technology Foundation. Among the panellists were top entrepreneurs, including Xavier Damman, the Co-Founder of Storify, and Jake Porway, the founder of DataKind, both extolling the virtues of smart new ways of harnessing the power of data to create new products online, and Herman Verrelst, the CEO of genetics specialists Cartagenia, who explained how personal DNA sequencing is revolutionizing medical treatment and allowing expert medical opinion to exploit computerised diagnosis tools.

Their enthusiasm for the revolutionary power of Big Data was put into perspective by a philosopher, who called for Europe to make a public, non-legally binding declaration on the ethical principles of how data about us and our families should be used by governments and private companies. Luciano Floridi, the UNESCO Chair in Information and Computer Ethics at the UK University of Hertfordshire and a Fellow at St Cross College, University of Oxford, argued that the explosion in the availability of information about every single human’s life and habits needed to be framed by a document that enshrined certain core values, such as civil rights and social security. He revealed that UNESCO is drafting a declaration on this issue, which would then be passed on to the UN.

Floridi argued that this ethical framework was absolutely essential for entrepreneurs, as these risk takers need the confidence and certainty of a legal framework for their initiatives, and that this in turn relies on an ethical understanding of what this new collection of data is, and how it should be perceived.

Other guests included two Commissioners, Androulla Vassiliou, Commissioner for Education, Culture, Multilingualism and Youth, and Neelie Kroes, Commissioner for the Digital Agenda. Vassiliou argued that Europe has been slow to recognise the benefits of Big Data in business culture, that the excellent universities and well-performing companies of the EU don’t have the cultural mindset needed to fully embrace data-driven innovation. That was an argument echoed by some of the American residents at the forum, including Damman from Storify, himself a Belgian who moved to California as he felt it had a much better environment for entrepreneurs seeking to develop an unproven business model online.

Signs of a more open approach to data were present however, with Kroes discussing the decision to make all research results from EU-funded scientific research project available publicly, a move which could have huge implications in certain areas of research where project results are often mothballed, rather than being shared.