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Open data could turn Europe’s digital desert into a digital rainforest – Prof. Dirk Helbing

Energy-saving smart grids and more accurate disease forecasting are just some of the potential applications of big data, says Prof. Dirk Helbing. Image: Sabina Bobst
Energy-saving smart grids and more accurate disease forecasting are just some of the potential applications of big data, says Prof. Dirk Helbing. Image: Sabina Bobst

Europe needs to pursue a different strategy from Silicon Valley if it is going to reap the social and economic benefits of big data, according to Dirk Helbing, Professor of Computational Social Science at ETH Zurich, who aims to create an open, real-time data stream from the Internet of Things.

What opportunities does big data present for Europe?

‘I’d say it’s impossible to catch up with companies like Amazon or Twitter or Facebook, 10 or more years later, with the same business model, given the incredible pace at which information technology is developing. Processing power is doubling every 18 months and data volume is doubling every 12 months, which means that in just a year we are producing literally as much data as in all the years before. It’s just unimaginable.

‘If we want to be competitive, Europe needs to find its own way. How can we differentiate ourselves and make things better? I believe Europe should not engage in the locked data strategy that we see in all these huge IT giants. Instead, Europe should engage in open data, open innovation, and value-sensitive design, particularly approaches that support informational self-determination. So everyone can use this data, generate new kinds of data, and build applications on top. This is going to create ever more possibilities for everyone else, so in a sense that will turn a digital desert into a digital rainforest full of opportunities for everyone, with a rich information ecosystem.’

You received EU funding for the FuturICT pilot project, which proposed, among other things, to build a ‘planetary nervous system’. Could you tell us more about this?

‘The planetary nervous system is going to produce big data for everyone. I imagine it a bit like an open data Wikipedia, a real-time data stream. How are we going to produce this big data? We are going to use the Internet of Things (where everyday electronic devices communicate with each other via the internet).

‘Imagine if there was one company in the world controlling all the sensors and collecting all the information. I think that might potentially be a dystopian surveillance nightmare.’

Professor Dirk Helbing, ETH Zurich, Switzerland

‘The Internet of Things is the next big emerging information communication technology. It’s based on sensors. In smartphones there are about 15 sensors; for light, for noise, for location, for all sorts of things. You could also buy additional external sensors for humidity, for chemical substances and almost anything that comes to your mind. So basically this allows us to measure the environment and all the features of our physical, biological, economic, social and technological environment.

‘Imagine if there was one company in the world controlling all the sensors and collecting all the information. I think that might potentially be a dystopian surveillance nightmare, because you couldn’t take a single step or speak a single word without it being recorded. Therefore, if we want the Internet of Things to be consistent with a stable democracy then I believe we need to run it as a citizen web, which means to create and manage the planetary nervous system together. The citizens themselves would buy the sensors and activate them or not, would decide themselves what sensor data they would share with whom and for what purpose, so informational self-determination would be at the heart, and everyone would be in control of their own data.’

How could the planetary nervous system create jobs?

‘In the beginning people might use it to play games but eventually they would learn: “I could build my own business with this”. They could create a consultancy, they could do data mining and offer information-based services, they could start to produce their own products using 3D printers and other kinds of novel technology that will transform our economy. And they would learn from each other because the open innovation approach is very much based on sharing.

‘As data volumes explode, data will be cheaper and cheaper and cheaper, which means that algorithms will become the valuable thing. They allow you to transform the raw data into useful information. But we will have a quick development also in this area and that means whatever computer code, whatever algorithm you invent, will lose its value in, say, two years or so. Given this, we will try to create incentives that would make people share their codes at least after some time. It’s like trees that are losing their leaves after a few months, thereby creating humus on which many plants can flourish. As in a rainforest, this principle creates more opportunities for everyone.

How could open data help us tackle challenges in society?

‘A lot of exciting things will become possible. We would have a real-time picture of the world and we could use this data to be more aware of what the implications of our decisions and actions are. We could avoid mistakes and discover opportunities we would otherwise have missed. We will also be able to measure what’s going on in our society and economy and why. In this way, we will eventually identify the hidden forces that determine the success or failure of a company, of our economy or even our society.

‘Big data can be used to address so many challenges, from environmental change to creating smarter cities, saving energy, improving the usage of scarce resources, and organising ourselves more efficiently. Take energy for example. If we coordinate our energy consumption patterns, we can avoid energy peaks. A smart grid can run our washing machine or charge electrical vehicles at a time when others don’t use so much electrical energy. In this way we can flatten out the overall energy consumption and we need less power stations.

‘It’s also conceivable that we would be able to determine diseases much earlier, before they break out. This means creating a system that would help us to stay healthy rather than to heal diseases when they’re there. Finally, regarding intercultural interactions, we now see applications such as real-time translation and digital personal assistants. I think these can be very useful to get along with each other better than in the past, because communication across language barriers and cultures has been difficult.’

How can we avoid some of the ethical problems that come with big data?

‘We need to recognise that big data is a technology, and as every other technology it has side effects. It’s not a perfect and universal tool, it makes mistakes – classification errors for example. We might find patterns that don’t have a meaning, that don’t express causality, we might find spurious correlations. Our attention might be drawn to certain things that are over-emphasised, as big data are not necessarily representative. So I want to say this clearly. But still it’s a powerful method that is certainly very useful to complement all the other methods that we’ve had in the past.

‘Applications where personal data are being used can be particularly problematic as they might lead to privacy issues, discrimination or manipulation. Therefore, we need to come up with mechanisms such as reputation systems and social norms, including sanctioning schemes, for how we use big data. We need sufficient transparency and quality control, because there is definitely a potential for misuse. But if we have a careful assessment of the potential risks and if we put suitable mechanisms in place, the benefits will far outweigh the risks.’

How can Europe reap the benefits of big data?

‘There will be a digital revolution whether we like it or not. We can turn this to our advantage if we understand what this really means, and what the opportunities and risks are. Then, we can take the right decisions.

‘We certainly need to cope with the pace of the digital transformation. We must now create new information systems and the institutions ensuring that these technologies will be used in a beneficial, ethical, responsible way. This will obviously require public investment. While this may be expensive, such investment will unleash much bigger social and economic benefits. It’s worth every single euro.’

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