This paper seeks to highlight, for the UK Ministry of Defence (MoD), the possibilities offered by Big Data, to warn of some of the associated risks and implications of using it, and to recommend some of the work that should now be set in motion.

Key recommendations

The consequences of ignoring Big Data and associated ‘third-platform’ technologies (cloud computing, mobile devices and social media) in the defence and security sector could be profound, including the loss of life and operational failure. In addition, the growing legal obligation regarding human rights of personnel and standards of care when on operations could apply in the future as much to the information provided to commanders and servicemen as it increasingly does to physical equipment and training. Beyond the clear moral imperative, therefore, the reputational and financial impact in an increasingly litigious society should not be ignored. The authors therefore recommend that the MoD should:

  • Define a Big Data work package (possibly to be managed by DSTL) as part of technology innovation studies sponsored by the Chief Technology Officer (CTO). This should consider a broad range of candidate technologies and techniques from the commercial sector that may have application to the areas of defence outlined above
  • Consider persuading two three-star officers (one in MoD Centre and one in Joint Forces Command – JFC) to act as Big Data champions or senior responsible owners for Big Data exploitation within the department and JFC respectively. The authors’ suggestions in this regard are the Chief of Defence Intelligence (CDI) and Director General, Strategy in the JFC
  • Consult widely on the responses to likely legal and ethical challenges that such an approach might require, particularly from a department of state
  • Select two functional areas (one from the MoD Centre and one from JFC or a Front Line Command) that might benefit from pilot programmes or concept demonstrators, acting both to support the MoD as a learning organisation and as proofs of concept for Big Data techniques
  • Use the proof of concepts to create a more detailed business case for change
  • In the pilot areas, the MoD should:
      • Assess training and educational needs for the functional areas expected to use Big Data, covering senior management and subject-matter experts (data analysts)
      • Initial assessment of the moral and legal issues to be addressed in any Big Data policy-development activity
      • Clarify the role of industry in support of developing the capability, including potentially providing skilled data analysts to the reserve force element.
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