Big data, big challenges

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If handled responsibly, big data enables many useful applications: the National Research Programme "Big Data" (NRP 75) of the Swiss National Science Foundation investigated the opportunities and the challenges.

The use of big data can improve our everyday lives: medical care, mobility and energy efficiency, or the supply of information. At the same time, the increasing use of big data poses a challenge – in terms of safeguarding democratic processes, equal treatment and fairness, or the right to anonymity in public spaces, for example. Moreover, who understands the processes that take place behind user interfaces? What can they be used for? And how can the indispensable data flows be sensibly regulated?

These and other questions were addressed by the National Research Programme "Big Data" (NRP 75). 37 research projects investigated key aspects of big data technologies and their applications. For example, they studied techniques for reducing the amount of data needed, mapped potential renewable energy sources in terms of their suitability and addressed ethical issues surrounding the use of big data in insurance or human resources. "The programme promotes big data's potential to create value in many areas and strengthens the excellent research on this topic in Switzerland," says Christian S. Jensen, president of the NRP 75 Steering Committee and professor at Aalborg University in Denmark. However, he adds that "the programme's findings also highlight the challenges. These need to be addressed so that we can use big data responsibly while realising its potential."

Defend top position, stay fit to innovate

Switzerland has excellent research capacities and specialists. But the demand for know-how is growing relentlessly. "Safeguarding Switzerland's position as a top-tier centre for research and education is particularly important in view of growing competition in international public and private research," says Friedrich Eisenbrand, member of the NRP 75 Steering Committee. International companies often drive technological development, which gives them a great deal of clout. For this reason, NRP 75 focused on strengthening core competencies for the development and use of big data in Switzerland.

The NRP 75 projects also produced new applications: prototypes for the automatic detection of floods or for monitoring the health of patients in intensive care units, and platforms for researching political scenarios. The work done in these projects also showed that regulatory progress is needed to help shape innovations and protect autonomous decision-making. "Technical progress cannot be implemented without the necessary legal foundations," says Emanuela Keller, head of the neurointensive care unit at University Hospital Zurich.

Reaping the benefits, assuming responsibility

To gain the greatest possible benefit from big data, the availability and accessibility of high-quality data is crucial. However, the collection and use of data are as much a social challenge as a technical one. "Our survey and media analysis show that the public not only distrust big data, they also believe in its potential," notes Markus Christen, managing director of the Digital Society Initiative at the University of Zurich. However, in order to build justifiable trust in big data processing, responsible handling is essential.

Legislators also need to deliver in this respect. Projects on societal, legal and ethical issues surrounding big data development and use highlighted regulatory shortcomings with regard to potentially discriminatory algorithms in human resources or insurance, for example. Other projects addressed the legal concepts of autonomy and ownership. These play a crucial role when it comes to drafting new laws on the use of dig data.

Switzerland has room for manoeuvre

Data is an increasingly valuable economic asset. Regulatory harmonisation across borders is hampered by national differences in terms of data protection and security. Findings from a project on international trade law underscore its growing importance and suggest ways in which this law could be put to better use in data-driven economies. "As an innovative and globally connected country, Switzerland can play an important role in this," says Mira Burri, professor of international economic and internet law at the University of Lucerne. Thanks to the numerous international organisations based in Switzerland, the country is in a unique position to support the harmonisation activities of transnationally oriented institutions.

Big data, artificial intelligence and machine learning are driving fundamental social changes. Cutting-edge data technology research is key if we want to be able to control these developments and benefit from them. For us as a society, the stakes are very high. The other key aspect is progress at the societal and regulatory levels. If we cannot get the two aspects to work in tandem, the wrong incentives may result and our society's influence may be weakened. Skills and resources must be promoted equally in both areas to balance needs and benefits.

NRP 75: Big Data affects us all

Dealing with data is increasingly becoming a core competency of a modern society. This applies in equal measure to the fundamentals underlying innovation, government and economic infrastructures and to ensuring a responsible approach to personal data. The National Research Programme "Big Data" (NRP 75) built up competencies in Switzerland for the development and use of big data. It has led to innovative technologies for processing very large amounts of data, interdisciplinary approaches to developing new applications, and insights into the complex social, legal and ethical issues associated with big data.

NRP 75 has thus strengthened research and innovation capacities in Switzerland. From 2015 to 2022, basic research, novel infrastructure technologies, concrete applications and the analysis of related societal issues were promoted in 37 projects. In this important phase of the big data development story, NRP 75 has raised awareness of core aspects of big data, developed the related competencies, engaged stakeholders from many different fields and addressed relevant societal challenges. It is complemented by the ongoing National Research Programme "Digital Transformation" (NRP 77), which focuses on the social dimensions of digital transformation.


Steering Committee of NRP 75 (2023), Big Data: Applications, technologies and societal aspects.
Résumé of the National Research Programme "Big Data" (NRP 75)External Link Icon, Swiss National Science Foundation, Bern.