When the National Statistics Bureau goes Big Data …


The Spanish National Statistics Bureau (INE) innovatively incorporates Big Data tools in a new mobility study, using GPS-mobile data. This announcement back in October 2019 sparked a hectic online debate, why?

Headlines are headlines – short and snappy -, and some readers may have stopped here and ignored further details published by newspapers about the study design, the anonymous data treatment, comparison to traditional techniques or the legal aspects.

The news generated a heated debate, as far as I observed from online reader comments and in chat groups. I was surprised by the magnitude of the response, and decided to analyze what could be causing such uncertainty. This is by no means intended as a scientific paper, but rather a personal reflection based on the topics discussed online:

Data Ownership and User Consent

„How dare they use my data? It belongs to me and I have not given consent!“

This is part of the digital paradox. On one hand, as users, we welcome the convenience and efficiency of certain digital services, and are willing to release personal information for specific purposes; on the other hand, we may find it disturbing when such information is used for a purpose we had not anticipated. As users or consumers, we are both audience and information source, as mentioned by Dashiell Pinger in his article on „Surveillance Capitalism in the New Data Economy“ in November 2019,  many of us captive and disengaged, lingering in the graceful reign of the „blissfully ignorant“.

The other side of the coin is that „one-fits-all“ service agreements with digital providers tend to be the norm, where the option to disclose personal information is embedded in the deal as a generic consent. It is not always clear under what instances data shall be shared with third-parties. Blanket agreement with blurred boundaries.

Formal agreement

Formal Agreement. Image by Catkin from Pixabay

Controversies such as the use of GPS-mobile data by the INE suggest that many users accept the convenience, but also want to have a say in their privacy.

Why not move towards a new consumer consent model? If users are allowed to gain control on how and what part of their data-sharing can be used, it will improve the relationship and increase trust towards providers. An interactive consent validation could be as simple and appealing as clicking the „I agree“ button now.

Going one step further, we can imagine the user as custodian of the own digital identity. For example, the self-sovereign identity (SSI) architecture works to incorporate – among others – „User control and consent“ and „Minimal Disclosure for a Constrained Use“, two of the seven laws of identity first published in 2005 by Kim Cameron, Microsoft’s Chief Identity Architect.

SSI is a form of decentralized identity in which the data custody remains with the user, not with the application owner. Users can choose what parts of their identity to share in exchange for services. This is still in early stages, but with the rapid development of blockchain technologies it could soon become the standard.

Blockchain. Image by Pete Linforth from Pixabay

Blockchain. Image by Pete Linforth from Pixabay


Data Monetization

„They are making money with my data! where is my part?“

The debate accelerated when newspapers published that the INE would be reimbursing the mobile service providers. It is not clear whether the payment is for the data, or just for the data preparation (classification, anonymization, processing). I assume it is for the latter, which would be the equivalent to outsourcing data entry services in previous traditional INE studies … but many users expressed the feeling of being cheated, not so much by the INE, but by the mobile telecommunication providers who earn additional money from „our data“ .

Money. Monetisation. Monetization

Image by klimkin from Pixabay

The advent of Big Data technologies is leading to new business models with data as the main lever, and with it a growing appetite for data collection and monetization. As individuals in the Big Data world, we have become „Prosumers“: data producers + consumers alike.

As „data producers“, being part of the value chain, should we be part of a remuneration scheme? In this example, when mobile companies generate extra profit by commercially exploiting Geo-data, should there be an incentive back to the data generators?

Disclosing personal information has an economic value and consumers want to be equal stakeholders. Shall the Big Data world introduce a sort of monetization dividend scheme? Consumers should at least be in a position to make informed decisions about releasing their data.


Trust in Government vs Data Privacy

„How can I be sure the State will not be doing individual tracking?“

Similarly to a conspiracy theory, many comments conveyed deep mistrust towards governmental bodies, picturing a vigilant State that could perversely use a statistics study to gain access to individual’s data for surveillance purposes. The media influenced this perspective, using gloomy vocabulary and eclipsing the timid official statement.

Eye. Surveillance.

Eye. Image by Pete Linforth from Pixabay

The way the INE study was announced – via punchy newspaper headlines instead of official, formal channels – sparked concerns on privacy, data ownership and informed consent, among others. The immediate remedy is better communication proactively tackling such concern topics; the longer term antidote is more transparency along with clear policies and effective policy control.

Big Data will sure become an efficient tool for National Statistic Bureaus, gaining in accuracy, granularity and speed; conveying these advantages to the wider public whilst establishing a sincere dialogue about data privacy policies can help in gaining wider acceptance for Big Data statistics. In parallel the legislative framework should evolve and specify: a) whether the use of Big Data to generate government statistics requires specific consumer consent, b) which protocols are to be observed, c) potential opt-in/-out mechanisms to be offered.


After this notorious controversy, I hope that the INE does a good job when sharing the study results, and improves communication when launching subsequent studies. It will be up to the Government to align the infrastructures to the mobility conclusions … will this bring new investments or rather cuts? Another touchy crossroad ahead!



About Author

The author has professional experience in the marketing research field and holds a Master in Applied Ethics. This Blog is written whilst enrolled in the CAS Big Data Analytics @ Lucerne University of Applied Sciences and Arts

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