BIG DATA from and for the SMALL PEOPLE


Get on board of the big data train – Dr. Dimitris Koureas (image author’s own)


New technologies and more data – that has been the chant in recent decades. The more we know of the individual animal or plant, the habitat, the ecosystem, the biome, and the planet at large, the better! The more technologies we have to monitor and obtain this data, at finer and coarser scales than ever before, temporal and spatial, the better! Give us clean data, data from all sorts of locations across the Earth, give us data in any format with metadata, but please, above all, give us beautiful, BIG data.

Dr. Paul Jepson of the University of Oxford can get as excited as any other on this topic. Whilst he is doubtful whether the age of big data is fully in motion already, he describes how biodiversity informatics means conservation can move from a data-poor science to a connected, data-rich science. Dr. Dimitris Koureas, from the Natural History Museum in London, no longer seems able to envision a future without big data and its associated technologies: the Natural History Museum wants to use such computing software to digitise its collection of millions of specimens by 2018. Digital technology is changing lives and it is revolving around information: big data is the way of the future not just in conservation, but in society, the economy and the world around us (Arts et al. 2015).


“Digital technology is changing nature conservation in increasingly profound ways.”  – Arts et al. 2015 (image author’s own)


Sounds great. Lots of big data from which we can find out about the world for conservation purposes, whether people’s behaviour regarding the natural environment, or about the biodiversity and ecosystems themselves. We can increasingly acquire data from all over the place – Professor Alex David Rogers describes the efforts being made to map the seabed, as does Sir David Attenborough in his recent series on the Great Barrier Reef. There are vast, immense amounts of data that can be stored at near negligible cost – as stated multiple times by Dr. Dimitris Koureas in his recent lecture at the University of Oxford.


Mapping the seabed of the Great Barrier Reef.


Still sounds great. Until, that is, we begin to examine big data more closely. Until we stop being overwhelmed and swept away by the big numbers, bold vision of the future and brilliant infographics all that data produces. Then we begin to realise that we, the people not in charge of the data, the people not processing the data, the people perhaps without the latest technologies or software, the people living next to the places where big data centres are established and big data collecting companies place themselves, we the small people, we don’t get to enjoy big data in quite the same manner as the big guys.


“As biodiversity has disappeared, we have been able to measure its decline more and more precisely.”Adams 2010 (image author’s own)


Who owns all your data?


This question is related to conservation, because if conservation is also going to start studying our internet behaviour to try to understand our nature-loving-or-hating-related behaviour, it will be accessing information about us. Your Google searches, perhaps Facebook behaviour, the things you write about on personal blogs, or the amount of messages you happen to be sending, photos you might be taking, when visiting a natural area. Light-hearted fun one minute, used to drive the conservation of the future the next.

Where, in all our discussion of the beautiful, big data sets, have the precautionary tales disappeared to?

Did no one involved in the production of big data watch or read George Orwell’s 1984? I wonder how the worshippers of numbers and statistics will feel when the movie version of Dave Eggers’ book The Circle is released later this year. Descriptions of the accessibility of big data for all baffle me – the data is almost always still either managed by a select few (those running the Natural History Museum digitisation process, those dictating the terms of the Darwin Core), or owned by a company (Google, Facebook, Twitter). They might share the parts which don’t harm their own image or give competition an advantage over them. But we all working toward select goals, there are things organisations and groups do and don’t want occurring, so how naive would we, the small people, be if we though such organisations will fairly and indiscriminately share their data?


“All that happens must be known”
– Dave Eggers, The Circle (image from Flickr)


Stephen Potter, recently presenting on Urban Mobilities in the Smart City in Oxford, described the current power organisation of big data as something rather like Foucault’s panopticon: we’re all being watched in the city by the cameras all around and by our traffic data being uploaded to central servers, and in the middle of the spider web sit just a handful who can observe – and control – everything that goes on below.


Now it sounds like I think big data is inherently EVIL. That’s not true. Big data does have immense power, immense power that can be used for good. However, how can scientists and politicians think that we’re living and operating as democracies, when increasingly the substances and information which determine actions will be big data generated on the terms and desires of a select few? As Rob Kitchin (2014) points out, data always comes from a certain point of view, is produced in certain ways, is a representation; data cannot speak for itself without a human framing.


Must we keep every dodgy photo, every snippet of conversation or conservation? (image author’s own)


If we want big data to be beautiful – beautiful meaning clean and democratic and social – we must build it together, and no one group should be allowed to dictate where or how it is stored, when it should be kept or deleted, and for what purposes it is collected or used. We need apps that people build together and where the data is stored in openly-disclosed places, where data can be permanently deleted as desired, and choices made together – not on the basis of a few scientists’ or politician’s interpretations of the output numbers.


After all, as Benjamin Disraeli said, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics”, so let’s be careful in trusting blindly in all the beautiful, big data that new technology presents to us today and tomorrow.


Want to read more environmental ranting, or check out tips on how to live a greener life? Check out my blog: thegreenwhale.


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