23 April 2015. Big data is a hot topic. Not only because the amount of digital data generated and stored has been growing exponentially over the past years, but especially because it will give rise to totally new ways of using data – bringing benefits and opportunities that previously were impossible or even inconceivable. In this sense big data is expected to revolutionise a whole range of societal activities. The evening event “Big Data and Space”, organised on the 15th of April, explored the role space has to play in this revolution.
After some welcoming words given by ESPI Director Peter Hulsroj, Luc St-Pierre – Head of the UN‐SPIDER – presented some introductory remarks on behalf of the UNOOSA regarding the importance of big data within the UN context and the Post-2015 Development Agenda.
Since space itself is a domain which is subject to intense change, the focus at the beginning of the conference was kept wide to avoid being constrained too much by present boundary conditions. This entailed a scene-setting presentation given by Mario Meir-Huber from the International Data Corporation Austria on the general non-space developments in the area of big data and its relevance for society. His presentation shed light on the main parameters that constitute big data, the so-called four V’s: volume, variety, velocity and value. Because of the different order of magnitude in these areas compared to normal data, big data sets are enabling a paradigm shift and are vastly increasing prediction capabilities. According to Mr. Meir-Huber, there are a number of challenges related to the management of big data in various parts of the data chain, especially since this activity is growing so rapidly. In fact the big data market is growing exponentially – with an anticipated doubling of global annual turn-over from $12,8 billion in 2013 to an expected $32,4 billion in 2017.
Subsequently, the focus narrowed to the space sector. Pier Giorgio Marchetti, Head of Research and Ground Segment Technology Section at ESA, gave a presentation on the technical developments, issues and trends in big data from space. Marchetti explained that big data is currently affecting various segments of space, including: Earth observation, space science, planetary science, space situational awareness and security. Since many organisations have a fairly free and open data access policy, it is key to bring both the data and the processing resources to the users in order to reap the benefits to the highest extent imaginable. This shortening of the feedback loop of data exploitation offers a great deal of opportunities and will have to be accompanied by a sensible policy that seeks to foster the benefits society can derive from big data. According to Mr. Marchetti this includes the identification of priorities and implementation of a plan for research, technology and innovation, a widening of competences and expertise at universities, more networking of data experts, the stimulation of spin-in / spin-off technologies and business, data promotion and the creation of a European ecosystem of innovation for EO products and services.
Following this, the relationship between big data and policy was explained in a video presentation given by David Osimo, Director of the consultancy firm Open Evidence. Mr. Osimo opened his presentation by saying that the EU has been very active in the area of big data and that the reason why it does so is well captured by a quote from Rufus Pollock saying “the coolest thing to do with your data will probably be thought of by someone else”. According to Osimo the implications of big data for policy are twofold. First, big data is changing the way we do science and therefore science policy itself. All science fields are becoming much more computational and data driven compared to the past and this is true both for social sciences and natural sciences. As a result of this trend, inductive ways of performing science are getting the upper hand over the more traditional deductive approaches. Also, entirely new ways of performing research are rising, such as citizen science. Second, big data is creating a new tool for evidence-based policy-making, a feature that will allow us to peek more quickly at the unknown unknowns. The uncovering of causal relationships between elements that humans would not necessarily think of or be able to compute will enable us to anticipate otherwise unexpected problems and map trends in real time. All these elements will alter the way by which we create, implement and follow-up policies.
At the end of the event, big data was approached from the legal perspective in a presentation given by Alexander Soucek, Legal Administrator in the ESA Legal Services Department. After explaining the commonly used definitions on the differences between data, information and big data, Mr. Soucek elaborated on a number of issues relating to privacy and data protection by referring to the various treaties and types of legislation and soft law applicable. This revealed that many of the instruments still used today were developed at the beginning of the digital revolution – as early as the 1980s. Later on, Mr. Soucek focused on the link between big data and international law, advocating that big data will have many positive effects on rights, making the law-making process more participatory and democratic and making the compliance of treaties much more enforceable. Also, big data has a strong potential to benefit humanitarian action in the sense that it represents a new, renewable resource with the potential to revolutionise sustainable development and humanitarian practice. The latter is aspired to through the UNSG flagship initiative that aims to bring about a data revolution in assistance of the Post-2015 Development Agenda.