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Big Data - Brian Clegg ****

I first became involved with what we now term big data when providing some mathematical assistance to a major supermarket.  They wanted to know what products would suffer, or benefit, if another product were put on special offer – the victims and victors as they called them.  As an example, if fresh meat pies are put on buy one get one free, should the supermarket plan on stocking more fresh vegetables? That sort of thing.  The supermarket in question had a lot of data concerning historical sales, and what had previously been put on special offer, so it was just a case of designing a set of algorithms to analyse this data to provide the necessary forecast, and also to have the system learn through what we would now call reinforcement learning over time.  This was back in the mid 90s. One can imagine how things - in all camps - should have vastly improved since then.  That’s just one example of where Big Data transparently impacts our lives.

In Big Data, Clegg sets out an assortment of examples from the success of Netflix and the prediction of crime locations to algorithms that have lost people their jobs or caused stock market crashes, examining the mechanisms and implications of each.  Taking the supermarket example - although this is my example and not his - we might ask ourselves who really benefits here – who exactly are the victims and victors (or villains perhaps) in real life?

Big Data is here to stay - should we be afraid of it or embrace it?  As always, Clegg writes with an easy clarity that draws us in - no technical expertise required to understand his exploration of this essential subject - and throughout Big Data’s highly enjoyable pages, the spread and range of material is highly impressive – dizzying in fact.  I personally found entirely new perspectives on the subject that will keep me pondering for quite some time.  

I should add that, if I were still a statistics lecturer at Oxford, I would recommend the book to my students as bedside reading.

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Review by Peet Morris
Please note, this title is written by the editor of the Popular Science website. Our review is still an honest opinion – and we could hardly omit the book – but do want to make the connection clear.

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