Timandra Harkness
Bloomsbury Sigma
2016 | 304pp | £14.88
ISBN 9781472920058
Buy this book from Amazon.co.uk

Big data

For at least 30,000 years – from when an unknown prehistoric person carved 57 notches into a wolf bone – humans have been collecting and recording data. Today, we are on the brink of an information revolution. The world’s stock of data is bigger than ever before and it’s growing, doubling approximately every three years. Timandra Harkness’s book Big data: does size matter? looks at what data science has already achieved and where it could take us in future.

The book starts off with a whistle-stop tour through the history of statistics, which reveals how researchers and officials first began to use data to answer questions.

Now, big data has the potential to affect almost every aspect of our lives. It will enable particle physicists to make sense of measurements at the Large Hadron Collider, improve healthcare and disease monitoring, and even help police forces predict where crimes are most likely to happen. With advances in computing and machine learning, our ability to collect, store and process information is constantly improving.

But these innovations may come at a cost. If not handled with caution, big data poses a risk to our privacy and confidentiality. The idea of hurtling towards an era where virtually every aspect of our lives is under surveillance makes many of us (myself included) uneasy, even if the data is captured with the best of intentions. Harkness certainly doesn’t shy away from these discussions, and although the book is light hearted and incredibly easy to read, the more sinister implications of big data are also explored.

On the flipside, the book did help to address some of my own personal fears about the use of big data by businesses. I have always been freaked out by targeted internet advertising, for example, but Harkness’s analogy of intelligent marketing being like a ‘personal butler’, making useful suggestions and helping to organise our increasingly hectic lives, offers a different perspective.

Along with the moral concerns, the limitations of using data to make predictions are discussed. Harkness – along with the many statisticians and researchers she speaks to – reminds us that no matter how sophisticated data collection is, human intuition is still vital when it comes to knowing what to do with it.

There is no doubt that data has come a long way since ice age tallies were first scratched into wolf bones, and it promises to change our world even more in future. Big data offers a hint at what that future might look like.