“Democratizing big data”

In 2014, Professor Gesche Joost was named Digital Champion of Germany. This European Commission initiative involves each EU member state sending one Digital Champion to Brussels. The job of these “digital ambassadors” is to link the European digital agenda to what is actually happening in the member states themselves. Born in Kiel in 1974, design researcher Gesche Joost is a professor at the Berlin University of the Arts, where she heads the Design Research Lab. We talked to her about the exciting topic of big data.

Professor Gesche Joost

Professor Joost, as Digital Champion of Germany you know more than most about big data. What opportunities does the intelligent analysis of large quantities of data offer businesses and research institutions?

Analysing large quantities of data offers the networked society enormous opportunities. It can be used in research to effectively combat serious diseases such as cancer by allowing huge volumes of anonymous patient data to be collated and analysed. In turn, the findings can be used as the basis for developing new treatments and individualized drug therapies. In business, big data can play a key role in the energy transition by allowing different energy sources to be intelligently interlinked, guaranteeing a reliable supply of electricity. New business models are based on the smart integration of such data, and we are only just beginning to leverage this potential. As such, big data is also a key concept when it comes to “future-proofing” Germany.

Many people in Germany are sceptical about big data. How do you intend to change this, and what are your other challenges as Digital Champion?

A debate about the technical possibilities and use of big data is taking place in Germany. As a result, people feel uncertain about using online services, partly because of the revelations made by Edward Snowden: what happens to my data online? How can I protect my privacy? Am I becoming transparent, with all my personal details on show?

I want to promote a rational debate which takes a sober and balanced view of the opportunities and risks and paves the way for new forms of data use, while at the same time respecting people’s right to privacy. I am therefore committed to the right to transparent use of data – everyone should be provided with easily understandable information online about how their data will be used so that they can decide for themselves whether to allow this to happen or not. We need to improve “data literacy” so that people are better able to handle their data. This is part of an overarching strategy of digital education which we wish to launch in Germany.

One of your most important objectives is digital integration – what do you mean by this?

My goal is to make technology development inclusive. In other words, all kinds of different groups in our society would be included in the process so as to overcome the digital divide: the old and the young, women and men, people with disabilities. We need to keep building bridges to provide access to the digital society for people who have previously felt excluded – due to insufficient technical abilities, an absence of technological infrastructure or simply a lack of interest. Digital education opportunities, simple user interfaces and ease of use are important factors, as are courses tailored to the needs of different target groups.

Which big data research projects in Germany particularly impress you?

One impressive project is “Stratosphere”, which is taking place at the Berlin Big Data Center at TU Berlin. This is an open-source system for the kind of scalable data analysis that plays a role in machine learning. Because the system is open-source, anyone – not just big companies or research institutions – can analyse large quantities of data. The Big Data Center has set itself the goal of democratizing big data – by giving many people access to the results of the analysis.

Professor Joost, thank you very much for talking to us.