Today I went to Nottingham University’s Sutton Bonnington campus to talk to Prof Richard Emes, a bioinformatician. We sat in the coffee shop there and talked for two solid hours about Big Data, while my boyfriend took a walk in the Arboretum with our baby. (The campus is lovely, definitely worth a visit if you ever get the chance)
Not only was it a fascinating conversation, but just before we left they started putting reduced stickers on the food in the display cabinet. We got two sets of ‘all-day-breakfast’ sandwiches, and four packs of tropical fruit cocktail, all for 90p! So if you are visiting, my tip would be to make it a Friday afternoon…
I’ve been writing these debate kits for six years now (this is my seventh kit) so you’d think I’d have got the hang of it by now. But each one is a new challenge. The way I do it is find out as much as possible about the topic and the issues it raises. Then once I’ve got a feel for the topic, I hunt around for a question that a reasonable person could go either way on. Then I know I can make the characters believable and sympathetic.
I do quite a lot of reading on the topic, but there’s no substitute for talking to people who really know the area. Usually I only need to talk to a couple of people before I start hearing the same points raised again.
This was my fourth research interview so far for this kit and we covered completely new ground. Big Data really is a big topic, and I think for this one I’m going to have to do a lot more research before I’ve scoped it out.
I asked Prof Emes what his ‘Big Data in a nutshell’ definition would be, and he said, “When the data you are producing is too big – there’s too much of it – for you to handle it alone.” By that definition, Big Data has been around a long time, certainly since the Human Genome Project (the first draft of the human genome was published in 2000).
Prof Emes said he used to think people were young if they were born since Live Aid. Now, there are students in Year 9 who were born since the human genome was sequenced.
Some of the issues raised so far:-
How are we going to store the massive amounts of data involved? And where will we find enough biologists with the computer skills to manage it?
How do we even work with this level of data? For example, as Julia from the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute pointed out, one day our genomes will all be easily sequenced. But that’s thousands of genes. How will your doctor look at your test results and take in the relevant information? It’s not like casting their eye down a list of blood test results.
There are all sorts of privacy issues. For a start, genome data can’t truly be anonymised, because once you have someone’s genome, you can infer facts about them.
Also, you share a great deal of your genome with your close relatives. What happens if I want to have my genome sequenced, and find out what ‘dodgy’ genes I have? But my sister doesn’t want to have hers sequenced, and would rather not know. She probably can’t help finding out what I’ve found out from mine. So the privacy of her genome isn’t hers to control any more.
Also, who owns your genetic sequence? Who has the right to publish it? What if your parents got you sequenced as a child, and then someone developed a drug based on your DNA. Who owns that? You can’t take the knowledge back.
Genome sequencing is now so quick and cheap that you can sequence an organism in a couple of weeks. (The Human Genome Project took over ten years). What if we all got sequenced at birth? Could you then be refused a job in the police, because you had genes associated with aggression? Or automatically put into the bottom set at school because you had genes associated with having difficulty reading?
These are just a FEW of the questions I’ve been asking this week. And so far I’ve only really been talking about genetics. I still need to talk to people about Big Data and neuroscience.
It’s going to be hard pulling it all together into a kit. And of course, one kit won’t be able to cover every issue I’ve been hearing about. But I’m feeling quite excited that it’s a topic with so many sides to it. I think this is going to be a great kit.