Privacy concerns raised in Big Data discussion

Panel discussion looks at conflicts that may arise with the opening up of large spatially-based data resources

Opening up of large spatially-based data resources, particularly by governments, brings into contrast and potential conflict the personal and the objective or authorised views of the same set of data.

This was one theme of a panel discussion in Wellington last month, conducted as a counterpoint to the Big Data exhibition which has marked the reopening of the National Library building.

Called “Space to Place”, the discussion, steered by broadcaster Kim Hill, was broadcast for the first time on Radio New Zealand on Sunday March 10. It involved Kevin Sweeney, formerly New Zealand Geospatial Custodian, National Librarian Bill Macnaught; and Stephen McDougall, director of Studio Pacific Architecture.

Spaces, expressed in the mathematical language of location, terrain and building data, become places when imbued with a personal perspective. Selection and combination can create new data from “mashing” together two or more previous sets of data, says or the user can choose to use some parts of the data and ignore others, say Macnaught and McDougall.

This raises the question, Hill says, of whether one’s sense of place is constrained by an official slant on the data, privileged by those with superior data manipulation resources, or strong commercial motives. Marketers, for example, can collect huge amounts of data on customer behaviour, slanted to the purpose of gaining more business and raising questions of privacy invasion and behavioural manipulation.

Selection from the huge resources of data now available can be used to tell personal stories, highlighting, for example, someone’s great-grandmother’s personal participation in the struggle for woman’s voting rights.

Macnaught emphasised how exercises such as the National Library-sponsored annual Mix & Mash contest prove that ordinary people now have the skills, hardware and software to be creative with data, but there is a need for tools to improve the masses’ ability to manipulate the data, Sweeney says. Alongside this, there will always be a need for experts to advise in navigating data, he adds.

Macnaught gave an account of his steering of a project in the UK to revitalise a sense of place among the people of Gateshead in northeast England, focussed on the 20-metre-tall bronze sculpture “The Angel of the North”. While these people used to say “I’m from Gateshead, opposite Newcastle,” they are now proud to identify themselves as from “Gateshead, home of the Angel of the North”, he says.

The focus on Big Data became a little lost here, but clearly a good deal of data manipulation was involved in realising Antony Gormley’s semi-abstract sculpture and erecting it on the site of an old coal mine, to symbolise new lives and industries rising from the old.

McDougall was one of the prime movers of the Kumutoto project, creating public spaces on the Wellington waterfront. Part of this proposed bringing back into daylight the streams that used to flow through Wellington and are now concealed in underground pipes – this is one theme of the National Library exhibition.

This, McDougall says, was extensively based on historical data highlighting the awkward colonial relationship between Maori in the region and the colonial authorities and settlers, but ironically it brought him into conflict with the new stewards of the physical environment, who cited environmental and health and safety concerns to prevent him boring holes in Wellington’s Woodward Street to expose the Kumutoto stream.

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