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Big Data - Timandra Harkness *****

I am very wary of books written by people who claim to be taking the wide-eyed outsider's viewpoint, claiming no knowledge of the topic and talking to lots of people in the know - despite the success of Bill Bryson's science book. However, as soon as I came up against Timandra Harkness pointing out that 'data' makes much more sense as a (singular) collective noun for data points, so we should say 'What is data?' rather 'What are data' (something I've been arguing for years), I knew that I was going to enjoy this book.

And despite the rather hard work attempts to be funny in footnotes (especially over number of cups of tea drunk while writing the book), mostly Harkness settles down into telling the story well with a clear amount of knowledge behind her writing (she is, after all, taking a maths degree). 

The story she tells is both fascinating and important. It takes in the historical introduction of statistics, Babbage (where she almost manages to talk about Ada King (aka Lovelace) without over-hyping Ada's contribution), the development of computing and most significantly the way dealing with large amounts of data has transformed the way many scientists do their work. Some of the approaches are mind-boggling - for instance the idea of monitoring mosquitos from airships (poor index, by the way - neither mosquitos or airships are in it), detecting the diseases they are spreading and where (and stopping some as they go).

Things start to feel a little more uncomfortable when Harkness takes us onto just how much can be found out about us from our smartphones. While I don't understand her distaste for a husband and wife who can find each other's location with their smartphone - all her reasons why this is bad seem the kind of thing that shouldn't be an issue (and you can always turn your phone off if you really want to be secretive), the systems being trialled that could, for instance, pick up conversations on the street, locate phones and track numberplates really do stray into big brother  territory, as do the potential misuses of medical data. Having said that, in the section on misuses, she only interviews activists/people who are suspicious, and has no one giving the positive sides. But it's worth noting when there is so much in the news about the balance between personal secrecy and the attempt to keep on top of terrorists and the like.

Overall, a great mix of plenty of information and views on the potential benefits and dangers of big data. Just occasionally it seems like Harkness is taking the party line - for instance taking the benefits of smart meters for customers for granted, even though they are really far more about making complex tariffs easier to impose for the electricity companies - but overall it's a truly fascinating tour of the data that lies beneath so many of the things we do everyday, from the adverts that pop up on our phones and computers to the customer loyalty cards of supermarkets.

A brilliant guide to our brave new world.


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Author interview
Review by Brian Clegg


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