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Monday, October 02, 2017

The Groove Book Review - Big Data: How The Information Revolution is Transforming Our Lives - By Brian Clegg (Allen & Unwin $22.99)

Big Data - Brian Clegg
It's hard to avoid 'big data' - but we've lived in an information age for decades. What's changed?

An easy to absorb tour of this transformative technology, finding out how big data enables Netflix to forecast a hit, CERN to find the Higgs boson and medics to discover if red wine really is good for you.

Less positively, we explore how companies are using big data to benefit from smart meters, use advertising that spies on you, and develop the gig economy, where workers are managed at the whim of an algorithm.

Is the Brexit vote successful big data politics or the end of democracy? Why do airlines overbook, and why do banks get it wrong so often? With big data unquestionably here to stay, a bright future beckons if we can embrace its good side while guarding against its bad. This book reveals how.

The first time I heard the term 'big data' was at an exhibition of ESRI GIS data whilst working at the Ministry for Environment on a Climate Change Project.  Large amounts of data was used not only to map the change of tree growth but also to map the change of land use over an entire country (NZ) for 150 years starting from the earliest survey results right up to measurements taken from satellites and drones only 3 weeks prior to the modelling exercise.  All big data, my friends.

Data has been with us since we first made marks on clay tablets, but big data takes information technology - and its impact on our lives - to a whole new level. The combination of four key pieces of tech - the internet, advanced computers, smartphones and sophisticated algorithms that manage and interpret huge flows of data has made our systems worryingly powerful.
But 'Big Data' provides the answers to every aspects of our lives.  Look at the buying patterns at your local supermarket.  Daily results will tell you what products would suffer, or benefit, if another product were put on special offer – the victims and victors they are called. Another example is Netflix, who, Clegg shows, was funded not by advertising but by subtle product placement and subscriptions.  Their shows are also funded by the trending results.  Shows are determined by clicks and direct correlation ratings and the crowd, so to speak, decides what works and where Netflix should invest their funds when backing a new show - not the advertisers.  Data tells them exactly what show works, the age and sex and income of the audience and virtually everything else about them, too.

In Big Data, Clegg not only does shows us how of Netflix succeeds but also how the prediction of crime locations have been manipulated by algorithms to direct Police into the right place at the right time.  Sadly Big Data is the thing that will steal our jobs by using predictable stats to provide the answers that human judgments can't - or won't make.  Who knows, algorithms may even be part of the election process one day - and not just for polling!

Essentially, Big Data is here to stay.  Because, let's face it.  Big corporate are selfish, money grubbing arseholes. They don't care about your individual preferences.  Or your freedom to choose.  They want to manipulate your choices.  They want to box and number you and sell you more.  And to do that, they need to profile you.  If you won't fit the box, they'll crate the world you live in and model around it.   But, doom is at hand.  Big Data can create any scenario - and believe me - you're in one of those!   - 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.  You don't need a maths degree.  Just a good dose of cynicism.

Big data presents us with huge opportunities… and challenges. It can make our lives better, from improvements in medical diagnosis to the benefits of a smart home, or it can ruin our lives where jobs are managed by algorithms and our finances are managed with no way of understanding how the decisions are made or appealing against them. Big data is here to stay - so we all need to understand it better.

The volumes of data we now access can give unparalleled abilities to make predictions, respond to customer demand and solve problems. But Big Brother’s shadow hovers over it. Though big data can set us free and enhance our lives, it has the potential to create an underclass and a totalitarian state.

With big data ever-present, you can’t afford to ignore it. Acclaimed science writer Brian Clegg - a habitual early adopter of new technology (and the owner of the second-ever copy of Windows in the UK) - brings big data to life.

About Brian Clegg
Clegg wrote one of my favourite geek books - Inflight Science: a Guide to the World from Your Airplane Window.  Every moment of your airplane journey is an opportunity to experience science in action--Inflight Science will be your guide. Brian Clegg explains the ever-changing view from your window seat and suggests entertaining experiments to calculate how far away you are from distant objects and the population of the towns you fly over. You'll learn why the coastline is infinite in length, the cause of thunderstorms, and why there's absolutely no chance of getting stuck on an airline vacuum toilet!  Packed full of amazing insights from physics, chemistry, engineering, geography, and more, Inflight Science is a voyage of scientific discovery perfect for any journey.

Born in Rochdale, Lancashire, Clegg was educated at Manchester Grammar School and went on to read Natural Science (specializing in experimental physics) at Cambridge University. After graduating, he spent a year at Lancaster University where he gained a second MA in Operational Research, a discipline originally developed during the Second World War to apply the power of mathematics to warfare. It has since been widely applied to problem solving and decision making in business.

From Lancaster, he joined British Airways, where he formed a new department tasked with providing all PC hardware, software and consultancy to the airline. When this was successfully running, he set up BA's Emerging Technologies Group, which researched and trialed technologies from fingerprint recognition to electronic cash. This emphasis on innovation led to training with Dr. Edward de Bono, and in 1994 he left BA to set up his own creativity consultancy, running courses on the development of new ideas and products, and the creative solution of business problems. His clients include the BBC, the Met Office, British Airways, GlaxoSmithKline, Sony, Royal Bank of Scotland and many other blue-chips.
Clegg is a regular speaker and has spoken at a range of venues, from Oxford and Cambridge universities to the Dana Centre at London's Science Museum. His book A Brief History of Infinity was launched with a sell-out lecture at the Royal Institution in London. He is also a regular contributor to both radio and TV programmes and writes regular columns, features and reviews for numerous magazines and newspapers, including PC Week, Computer Weekly, Personal Computer World, BBC History Magazine, Good Housekeeping, Chemistry World, Physics World, Nature, Playboy, Wall Street Journal, The Times, The Observer and House Beautiful.

Clegg's 'Ecologic' won the 2009 IVCA Clarion Award, while 'A Brief History of Infinity' and 'Dice World' have been on the longlist for the Royal Society's book prize. In 2013, he was featured as a question on the BBC quiz show University Challenge and also appeared in the Christmas edition of the show, representing Lancaster University alongside actor Roger Ashton-Griffiths, presenter Ranvir Singh and food writer Matthew Fort.

His latest UK book Are Numbers Real?: the Uncanny Relationship between Maths and the Physical World was published by Robinson on 2 February 2017. In the US, his most recent title is Are Numbers Real?: the Uncanny Relationship of Mathematics and the Physical World, published by St. Martin's Press in December 2016.  Clegg lives in Wiltshire with his wife and twin children.

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Many thanks to for this book

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