On the anniversary of the establishment of the World Wide Web, two important characters in the history of the world wide web and the open data institute came out and challenged the vaunted position that “data is the new oil”. These were Sir Nigel Shadbolt and Sir Tim Berners-Lee who don’t believe that we should be thinking about data as oil.
Of course, use of such statements smacks of public relations and marketing speak but it is an important quote from the early noughties thought to have been coined by British mathematician and architect of the Tesco Supermarkets Clubcard – Clive Humby. Since then, it has been used frequently since. For an interesting assessment of just how frequently, you can check out Michael Haupt’s assessment of the phrase it’s use and abuse in his Medium post “Data is the New Oil” – A ludicrous Proposition.
Some have taken the position even further, namely Technology thinker James Bridle who, in New Dark Age: Technology and the End of the Future, considers the current data overload in society and its use as actually potentially catastrophically harmful for modern thinking.
Humby was of course making more reference to the fact that unfiltered, unrefined and particularly poor data quality makes data less valuable, which of course makes complete and logical sense but there is a bigger issue here, which is around appropriate use and in fact simply data rights.
It is also of no surprise that a good many companies are now actually making money out of directly selling data or repackaging, aggregating and reworking data and again in turn reselling it with various data attributes that make it useful for tasks like marketing segmentation, customer prioritization, risk assessment and opportunity evaluation. These include postal authorities like the Royal Mail and up until recently even government agencies.
Back in 2013 Sir Tim Berners-Lee objected to UK postcodes being privatised when the Royal Mail was floated as a public company. But despite objections it went ahead. Numerous critics voiced concerns that actually privatizing the PAF would impair business innovation. As Sir Nigel Shadbolt said at the time, “the release of non-personal public data on spending, transport, health, crime, weather and so on are all contributing to new innovation” – his expectation was that the PAF being open could do the same.
The reverse happens in some instances though, recently, for example DEFRA – the UK’s Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs openly published over ten thousand data sets according to consultant Mike Rose. Interesting perhaps too, is the fact that less than 10% are probably ever looked at and a mere twenty data sets are those most often used. To Rose, what this means, is that we should look to what we need to focus on. How do we get more out of the data not necessarily “let’s make more open data”.
DEFRA had previously been making money out of selling its data, now a lot of DEFRA data is freely available to use. There is a push for even more data to be made open and available like the Royal Mail PAF. Simply making more data available battles with the competitiveness of academia and practical business use and potential abuse. Rose describes how researchers worry that making data freely available will lead to their own assessments and findings being gazumped by faster publishers or critics who will challenge positions ahead of publishing. All of these play into a bigger challenge which is the perspective that there needs to be more trust between data providers and users. What Rose calls a “coalition of the willing”. To resolve this, he proposes consideration of the ODIs Data Spectrum. Rose describes a concept called FAIR data. Data that is Findable, Accessible, Interoperable and Reusable. For public data these are all particularly important attributes.
Last year, Gavin Starks, founding CEO of the UK’s Open Data Institute was also quoted following a public lecture at Victoria University of Wellington, wherein he is described as saying “data as fundamentally different from oil, since oil diminishes in value as you burn it, while data, once collected, only becomes more valuable.” But, as the recent data scandals like those associated with Facebook and Cambridge Analytica have highlighted, there are problems, some data probably shouldn’t be available to buy or be in the public domain.
One of these data problems is rooted in who should actually own the data and claim rights to it and who should have access to what data and under what circumstances – particularly consumer behavioural data. Quoted by DataIQ, Sir Tim Berners-Lee said “Instead of talking about the value of data as though it were oil, we (should) talk about the rights to it. I should have the right to have my data because it is a human right. I should have the ability to be able to do things with it.” Sir Tim Berners-Lee has been instrumental in the launch of a Google and Facebook-backed plan to fix the web called the Contract for the Web – “A global plan of action to make our online world safe and empowering for everyone”. You can individually or organizationally endorse the contract by visiting the Contract for the Web.
Finally, I’ll mention that the Open Data Institute’s Data Spectrum helps with how you think about private consumer data too. The ODI has tried to help answer the question of who should have data ownership through the creation of a spectrum tool to categorise the different kinds of data that we might encounter – from closed, to shared, to open.
Of course, many companies also have such policies around the handling of their own data dependent on regulations like the General data protection Regulation and other regulations but this is a thought piece rather than necessarily being a prescription for how we and businesses should think about the availability, management and ownership of data. It is worth closer examination though, particularly if your organization doesn’t have a data policy today. The spectrum ranges from closed to shared, to open.