Digging in data feature article in Society Now

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Digging in data feature article in Society Now

Feature article in Society Now

We are delighted to be featured in the latest edition of Society Now, the regular magazine from ESRC bringing the latest and most topical social science research to key opinion formers in business, government and the voluntary sector.

Collaborating with our peers at Urban Big Data Centre and the Consumer Data Research Centre the feature gives an overview of how we all fit into the ESRC’s Big Data Network.

Digging in data

Analysis of data from local government and businesses can lead to understanding challenges in society and show potential solutions – from improving urban decision-making to helping businesses flourish – that help to shape society

Three Data Centres within the ESRC funded Big Data Network Phase 2 are making data, routinely collected by business and local government organisations, accessible to a wide range of users and academic researchers in order to undertake research of mutual benefit to data owners and in ways that safeguard individuals’ identities.

 esrc data logo

Business and Local Government Data Research Centre
Led by Professor Vania Sena at the University of Essex

Big data are the talk of the day. As the joke goes, everybody likes to talk about them but in reality not everybody is entirely sure about what they are and how or if they can be of any use.

In reality most organisations do not seem to be able to fully exploit these data and equally they do not seem aware of the techniques that would help them. The ESRC Business and Local Government Data Research Centre allows local governments and businesses to benefit from the big data revolution.

To help companies and local authorities explore and understand their data more effectively the Centre is collaborating across academia, business and local government drawing together theory and practice. The Centre is overseeing the creation of a physical repository based at University of Essex where the big data provided from both businesses and local authorities will be securely stored and will also provide users secure access points to the data.

The research programme will draw on this data providing methodological advances for the analysis of big data, as well as an innovative, substantive and inter-disciplinary research programme on smart, sustainable and inclusive regional economic growth. To help local government and businesses make the best of their data a bespoke training and a Knowledge Exchange programme offers users a suite of big data solutions to help them use their data more effectively. Understanding big data is a big deal for everyone. By exploiting and understanding data we can help businesses grow and help inform public policy for a better society.


Urban Big Data Centre (UBDC)
Led by Professor Piyushimita (Vonu) Thakuriah at the University of Glasgow

Cities are complex and dynamic, constantly challenging urban planners, city managers and policymakers to develop and implement robust urban policy. But city dwellers and organisations (government agencies, business, voluntary organisations, citizen scientists, urban planners using computer simulation models) also generate a wealth of information. Through the analysis of such urban ‘big data’, analysts can yield new understanding of trends, patterns or relationships about the social, environmental or economic activities of a city. This intelligence leads to data-driven urban planning, policymaking and business innovations by helping analysts better understand the challenges facing their city and potential solutions.

The ESRC established the Urban Big Data Centre to provide a framework and support for UK data owners and users to interrogate and extract useful information from urban data for policy, business and citizen engagement. In addition to compiling and providing access to urban data through an online portal, the UBDC also provides services to link and curate data, and expert support and training for users in advanced analytics.

The UBDC is also committed to developing innovative methods relating to urban data management and analysis, and new data products. For example, the Integrated Multimedia City Data (iMCD) project, will collect and analyse urban data from three interconnected data strands leading to novel, linked data: a representative household questionnaire-based survey on travel, literacy, energy use etc; sensing data through participants’ use of GPS and lifelogging; and internet-based visual and textual information. This and other data collected by the UBDC will provide opportunities for social scientists wanting to understand the complexity of urban decision-making as well as the possible influences of contextual factors.

Consumer Data Research Centre
Led by Professor Mark Birkin at the University of Leeds and Professor Paul Longley at University College London

‘Big data’ provide a shared focus of interest between academia, policy research and business. Key to this is the vast amount of consumer data (loyalty schemes, telephone records etc) collected by businesses on a daily basis. Analysis of these data can help us to better understand society and the challenges we face in a range of areas, including health, crime and the economy.

To date, these data have not been widely analysed by academics for two reasons. First, unlike data provided by central or local government, there has previously been little perceived advantage within business organisations and therefore no strong downward pressure to make data available for wider re-use. Second, few business organisations are monopolies so their data only offer part of the picture, making it necessary and requiring skills to link business sources to more inclusive and exhaustive data sources such as the census, or to adopt other methods, such as modelling.

The Consumer Data Research Centre (CDRC) is working with business organisations to open up these data resources, in a safe and secure way, for use by the academic community, and increasing understanding in the industry of the potential value of the data they hold and how it can be utilised to improve the strategic decision-making process.

The Centre is working on driver projects particularly relating to mobility patterns and sustainable consumption, exploring areas such as:

  • The geography of fuel poverty and how better targeting of home insulation incentives may alleviate it.

  • How the health of local communities is affected by the availability of healthy eating choices.

  • How the future vitality of the UK’s high streets is threatened by the development of online retailing and how new shopping behaviours can co-exist with the old.

  • The Centre is working with key partners to establish a network of high impact research projects using big data, and is always keen to speak to colleagues with new ideas.

The three Centres within the Big Data Network Phase 2 have distinct focuses but are all concerned with using ‘big data’ to help local government and businesses show new understanding of trends and relationships within society. Data really is helping shape our society for the better.

Download Society Now issue 21 in PDF format (2.2 Mb) (published on 23 March 2015)