Data are being created in vast quantities every day. Finding value from data is a process of cultivation rather than one of extraction or refinement.
Our experience with oil has been fraught – Fortunes made at the cost of dwindling resources, bloody mercenary conflicts, a terrifying climate crisis. To extend the analogy, data spills have already happened. How much longer before we see dangerous data drilling practices? Or the negative long term effects from data pollution?
Profit is being made through the use of human-generated information. Our browsing habits, conversations with friends, movements and location are being monetised. Going back to our central analogy, where oil is composed of the compressed bodies of long-dead micro-organisms, personal data is made from the compressed fragments of our personal lives. Data is about the person, a human being. Re-framing data in this way is crucial.
There is way more than short-term business value in looking at data in this way. Here are three elements which, taken together, might help us control our data better, and so lend it more value for us and the organisations which use it:
Understand and experience data ownership. We are all producing vast quantities of data, even if we rarely see or interact with any of it. By using tools to store, visualise, and explore our own data, we gain an understanding of the worth and utility of this information. This might help our understanding of data and lead to better decisions by individuals — both in cases where there data is being misused and in cases where data can be applied to solve important problems like disaster response, cancer diagnosis or disease spread.
Let’s have an open conversation about data and ethics. I rarely hear the rights of the people from whom data is being extracted mentioned. I do often hear about the value of data to organisations. This needs to change. Companies which position themselves as data humane have an opportunity to gain the commanding heights.
We need to change the way that we think about data, and appreciate it as a new kind of resource entirely. For this to occur we need to foster a deep understanding of data in society. Over the span of our existience we’ve developed a mechanism for this kind of broad cultural change: the arts. As we proceed towards profit and progress through the exploitation of data, let us encourage artists, novelists, performers and poets to take an active role in the conversation. In doing so we may avoid some of the mistakes that we made with the old oil, and perhaps realise more about ourselves.