Big Data – getting to the heart of the Information Revolution


Big data has captured the world’s attention, with talk of a new Industrial Revolution based on information, and of data being one of the 21st century’s most valuable commodities. The University of Cambridge has begun a month-long focus on research that uses, produces and interrogates huge datasets.


Cambridge researchers are at the forefront of solving many of the challenges that big data presents
  -  Paul Alexander and Clare Dyer-Smith, Cambridge Big Data

Our unprecedented ability to collect, store and analyse data is opening up new frontiers in science and the humanities, from extending our knowledge of how the universe is built, to creating new understanding of the genetic basis of disease, to discovering the impact of schools on pupil achievement.

It’s causing us to challenge not only long-held ideas about what is possible in research, but also to reflect on the value that we place upon ever-increasing quantification and the effect of pervasive data collection on our role as citizens.

‘Big Data’ has also been highlighted by the UK government as among the country’s ‘Eight Great Technologies’ that will help drive economic growth.

But what actually is big data? Collecting and analysing data on individuals, societies and all aspects of the natural world, is routine in research. So why the current preoccupation with the ‘bigness’ of data?

Part of this is the sheer deluge of data that we are now able to collect and store. Back in 2010, Google CEO Eric Schmidt declared that every two days we create as much information as we did from the dawn of civilisation up until 2003. And that was five years ago.

Of course size doesn’t always matter – sometimes big data can mean large datasets that are incredibly messy, with missing or corrupt information, which requires complex mathematical algorithms to make sense of it all.

Another aspect of the current interest in big data is the realisation that just because we can collect data doesn’t mean we are making the best use of it.  In fact, big data is often described as data exceeding our ability to handle it, and for which new analytical methods are required to extract useful information. But this is clearly a moving target, and research is urgently needed to keep up.

Recognising this, the government announced earlier this year that the new £42 million Alan Turing Institute, to be based in London, will carry out research in organising, storing and interrogating big data, headed by the universities of Cambridge, Edinburgh, Oxford, Warwick and UCL.

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Image: The Twingl mind
Credit: Andy Wilkinson

Reproduced courtesy of the University of Cambridge


The Cambridge Centre for Data-Driven Discovery (C2D3) brings together researchers and expertise from across the academic departments and industry to drive research into the analysis, understanding and use of data science.

Cambridge Centre for Data Driven Discovery, University of Cambridge