Big data, no data, and striving for a better world

08 Mar 2018
Christine Franciska Social Media Ambassador

No matter what your field of study is or what the industry you previously work in was, chances are you have heard about the term ‘big data’. Big data has infiltrated many industries and every aspect of our life too. It is not just about tech companies using user’s data to gain profit, but it is also about manufacturing companies looking for the most efficient production methods, or doctors investigating how to improve our health and so on.

This was why the ‘Big Data and Innovation Workshop’, organised by Chevening, drew a lot of attention from scholars from many different backgrounds. The event was held at the University of Liverpool on 26 February, 2018. The speakers included Frans Coenen, Professor of Computer Science, University of Liverpool, Mohamad Hussain from the BBC's Arabic service, and closing remarks by Steve Bickerstaff, who is the manager at the postgraduate student administration team at Liverpool Doctoral College.  

There were also two insightful workshops about ‘mapping vulnerable areas’ presented by Margaux Mesle from Missing Maps and ‘geo data in everyday life’ presented by Dr Daniel Arribas-Bell who is a lecturer in geographic data science from University of Liverpool.

Frans Coenen’s lecture gave a broad perspective on big data. The advancement of technology, he said, has made the process of data mining and storing easier and cheaper. The term big data itself is often associated with three V’s: volume (size of the data), velocity (speed of the data), and variety (variation of data). He provided some examples of big data research such as analysing typing patterns on computer keyboards to identify and authenticate individuals. Another possible study was related to population mining by using satellite imagery to estimate population sizes. “A very interesting session. I come from the health sector and I am keen to explore big data in my field,” said one scholar on the event.  

My favourite session was the ‘Missing Maps’ workshop. Margaux Mesle showed how big data actually could mean no data at all. Many vulnerable areas in developing countries, for instance, are not properly mapped. This is a big problem for humanitarian workers when they go to the field. In this case, they are not dealing with the abundance of data but the lack of data. How can they respond to a crisis or disaster if they don’t even have a map?  

The ‘Missing Maps’ tries to place the most vulnerable people on the map before a disaster occurs to reduce risk and help humanitarian efforts. By using the collaborative mapping platform called OpenStreetMap, us Cheveners learnt to create a map by identifying buildings and roads based on satellite images. One of the best things about this technology is that you can do it anywhere with your own laptop. The Missing Maps Project truly shows that big data can be used for a good cause.

Another interesting session was presented by a BBC Arabic journalist, Mohamad Hussain. He gave insight on how journalism adopts big data in the newsroom and also explained some useful tools for scholars to start crunching data. Big data, as he suggested, is for everyone. You don’t need to be a data scientist to analyse it.

Overall, this workshop is an excellent start for scholars who want to learn more about big data, its potentials, and controversies. "I am quite familiar with the utilisation of big data in business and the marketing sector,” said Rahmi Adhelia, an Indonesian scholar who studies at the University of Edinburgh. “But after attending the event and discussing this issue with my fellow Cheveners, I realise how prominent big data is in our life right now, the ethical issues behind it, and how we can adopt it widely to increase the quality of life and our environment."