The revolutionary power of big data

We’ve all seen news stories and reports on ‘big data’. This phrase is not always clear but the technology can bring huge benefits. This article is an attempt to explain how Malta’s government could use big data to improve society and life in general.

I

First I want to explain what ‘big data’ is.

In normal life you can gather data at a straightforward and predictable pace. Imagine you own a coffee shop and want to track how many sales you have. By the end of the day you’ll have statistical information about things like how many sales you made. It’s a lot of information but it’s manageable. It’s predictable.

Imagine wanting to track more information because you want to optimise your business. Stuff like the quantity of milk in store, or the times of day when people are more likely to eat carrot cake. The data in this example is not as predictable and is less manageable. You can’t plug this data into a spreadsheet to make sense of it.

This is the standard definition of big data. It’s data containing greater variety, arriving in increasing volumes and with higher velocity.

How can this affect our daily lives?

II

Big data is interesting because once you have the data you can mine it for information. You can see if patterns emerge. If you discover you rarely sell anything between, say, 1pm and 2pm, you know it’s worth scheduling administrative tasks during this hour.

Big data can reveal so much about our lives. I don’t mean people will know I always buy a decaf latte on Monday morning. I mean we can find out you sell 300 lattes everyday, 25% of which are decaf. Knowing these sort of things provides greater opportunities.

Big data = greater variety + increasing volumes + higher velocity

This becomes a treasure trove of information at a national level. If we had a city or a country wired into thousands of sensors we could build a dataset which shows, e.g., pedestrian traffic, vehicle flows, eating patterns, waste disposal needs and more. I referred to this sort of thing when I wrote about a smart city strategy for Malta.

As a result I’m sure you see the value of big data but do you see the possibilities for you and me?

III

Let’s take transport as a simple issue. In Malta studies examining a tunnel connection to Gozo are progressing. There’s plenty of data supporting this plan but greater volumes of data would help with more intelligent planning. For example:

  • The government has stated the tunnel would start in Manikata. Does it make sense to suggest another exit close to Għadira bay and remove the problems with the Mellieħa bypass? Think of all the pollution and fuel we would save if we don’t have to drive up to Mellieħa and down to the bay. Big data would tell us whether this makes sense or not.
  • The government has also said the tunnel will be a two-lane tunnel. Why not 4? Where’s the data behind that decision?
  • What about extending the tunnel further? Why not have another exit in Burmarrad to bury all traffic that flows past St Paul’s Bay? Or another one on the road to Rabat? Where is the data showing whether these ideas are rubbish or would make sense?
The proposed tunnel from Manikata to Nadur (Image (c) The Malta Independent)

I’m not talking about the cost here because that is a separate discussion. We can argue whether X million Euros are worth the price for a Y % reduction in traffic or not. We need the numbers before we can have that debate.

Not many of us would pore over the data itself but if it were there, imagine what an entrepreneur would do with it …

III

Let’s say I’m interested in running a water taxi service from Valletta to St Julians via Sliema.

  1. How many customers are there?
  2. When is peak hour?
  3. What are the seasonal route demands?
  4. What about adding stops in Pembroke or Buġibba?

If I had access to big data which had this information I could mine it and get answers to these questions. No one else thought to look at traffic patterns the way I did so I can identify patterns others would have missed.

If you’re like most people you’re asking yourself if this is realistic, right?

Dubai water taxi

There are plenty of examples around the globe already.

  • The United Kingdom passed the Bus Services Act in 2017. This gives ministers the power to compel transport operators to release data on things like fares and real-time location.
  • City of London Police provide open access to an updated database of all crime overlaid on Google Maps. You can see how bad or good your neighbourhood is by looking at aggregated monthly data.
  • British real estate company Zoopla has a heat map of the British Isles showing house prices. In London 2 Tube stops or a short walk could mean a GBP 200 000 difference in price. You’d only know if that was a bargain if you cross-referenced with the crime map.

What’s the situation in Malta?

IV

Malta’s Digital Government strategy already allows for the publication of big data. Quoting from the government’s website:

In addition to facilitating the sharing of data across public administration, government will make public sector information available to all as allowed by law. Structured data will be published in a way that it can be interlinked (Linked Open Government Data) and become more useful to government entities, third parties and respective systems. The adoption of Big Data technologies will allow complex data to be processed, improving decision-making in critical areas such as finance, healthcare, transport, utilities and the environment.

I like this.

It’s a great first step towards having accessible big data especially if this is government data. The key phrase in this paragraph is “as allowed by law.” If the laws do not allow sharing then this strategy is pointless.

As a result I’m optimistic that things will get better but also sceptical about when, or what.

V

Big data can drive the future economy because no single person can imagine everything. Together we can imagine a collective future which is better than the present. Having access to all this fuels creativity and innovation.

I’m happy to see this is part of the government’s strategy. I look forward to having plenty of data accessible for free for entrepreneurs.

Big data means big changes means big business.

Who knows which big dataset will be the first to produce results?

Share this with someone who would benefit from big data

References

  1. Big Data; IT Glossary; Gartner; (Retrieved 2018-10-09)
  2. What is big data?; Oracle; 2018; (Retrieved 2018-10-09)
  3. A proper smart city strategy; Antoine Borg; Brain, not ego; 2018-05-08
  4. Malta-Gozo tunnel works should start this legislature – Muscat; The Times of Malta; 2018-06-02
  5. Channel tunnel will likely cross from Nadur to Manikata; Kevin Schembri Orland; The Malta Independent; 2018-04-10
  6. How bus start-up can put Britain on road to solving its productivity problems; Philip Aldrick; The Times; 2018-08-07
  7. Crime Map; Police. UK. (As updated)
  8. Heatmap of UK property values; Zoopla.co.uk; (As updated)
  9. Digital Government; digitalmalta.org.mt; (Retrieved 2018-10-09)

All references were valid and correct when this article was published. Changes to referenced websites or web pages may render some references invalid. If this is the case, please leave a comment below.


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