From health care to city management, we hold out a lot of hope for data--and even more, "Big Data"--to fix our problems. And, in many cases, it surely will. But the perils of personal information being freely available to all--from fraud, to identity theft, to authoritarian intrusion--are also clear. Data is a double-edged sword that’s just as likely to deprive us of our individualism, as serve up the perfect, and personalized, 21st-century solution.
A new report from the World Economic Forum, developed by the Boston Consulting Group, looks at the implications for data rights in a world of omni-analytics and ubiquitous networks, including the so-called "Internet of Things," which will soon deliver data from more or less every machine we come across, not to mention our interactions with smart-phones, Web browsers, and Twitter channels.
The report, which is based on interviews over nine months with private and public officials around the world, says it’s time for a rethink. It suggests we move from an approach that tries, increasingly unsuccessfully, to safeguard data, to one that looks at its usage. "One common concern was that policy frameworks that constrain how data can be linked, shared and used (such as collection limitations, purpose specifications, and use limitations) are increasingly less effective and anachronistic in today’s hyperconnected world," it says.
There is a need for more transparency, and clearer language and design, so that individuals understand the "value exchange" when they give over their information. Otherwise, there is a risk of "a declining sense of trust throughout the personal data ecosystem" that jeopardizes "the long-term potential to deliver socioeconomic value." Rather than passively consenting to giving away information, we need more engagement, it says.
While we tend to marvel at the possibilities of data, the report points to potential problems. For example, Nike’s Fuelband, which tracks individual activity, might provide a "rich daily health dashboard," but also raise several questions we haven’t considered yet. For example, can the data produced be combined with medical records, and more traditional measures of health? Can the data be authenticated? Can insurance companies use the data for coverage decisions?
"Such concerns are valid and need to be addressed, but preemptively fencing off certain data devices and types because of these concerns would reduce innovation, discovery, and value to individuals and businesses," the report says.
Titled Unlocking the Value of Personal Data, the report was released at last month’s Davos meeting, along with a web site called We The Data, which includes several films discussing big data themes. For example, here is Bill Joy, founder of Sun Microsystems talking about the pros and cons of "vibrant data."
Over the next few years, there is going to be a lot more to say on this topic. At the very least, the World Economic Forum has made a start. We may find that the data-driven world isn’t quite as friction-free as we imagine. Better we start talking about the potential problems now.