Data will set you free

Global cit­i­zens can do the heavy lifting in an in­ter­con­nected world

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - MEDIA& MARKETING - KATHRYN KURE

THERE is no place to hide any more. Com­pa­nies, coun­tries and gov­ern­ments are in­creas­ingly chal­lenged by open, ac­ces­si­ble data and maps.

En­ter­tain­ers have al­ways made for com­pelling view­ing, but who would have thought an 89-minute­long, aca­demic YouTube video ti­tled Sugar: the Bit­ter Truth by a pro­fes­sor of en­docrinol­ogy would be viewed more than 6 mil­lion times?

Who could ever have imag­ined that the pin­na­cle of Ger­man au­toma­tive engi­neer­ing, Volk­swa­gen, could be brought to its knees by re­search un­der­taken by a small, al­beit highly spe­cial­ist aca­demic cen­tre?

Op­pres­sive regimes in a num­ber of coun­tries never con­sid­ered block­ing satel­lite im­agery from Google Earth un­til the data-map­ping ge­nie, ie map­tivism (us­ing Google maps in con­junc­tion with crowd- sourced data from so­cial me­dia) was out of a num­ber of bot­tles.

But in a world in which Libyan rebels could talk openly about “fight­ing with Google Earth” and when ques­tioned say, “Why not?”, and their big­gest is­sue is not a dearth of data but so much data that phones be­came “too hot to touch”, it is ev­i­dent the is­sue is not only one of a lack of data, but of what to do with the data.

Even Baidu, the Chi­nese search en­gine gi­ant, has re­cently used its track­ing data­base of 700 mil­lion users to gen­er­ate a map of China’s “ghost cities”, which in­di­cate very low num­bers of peo­ple liv­ing in many cities de­spite a high num­ber of houses – and which low pop­u­la­tions are not due to the sea­sonal vari­a­tion of tourism, given the length of time over which the data was tracked.

As much as hu­mans are mo­ti­vated to­ward en­ter­tain­ment and con­nect­ed­ness, as any par­ent knows, we also crave an­swers to the age-old ques­tion, “Why?”

We are not sim­ply see­ing the rise of cit­i­zen sci­en­tists (or com­puter sci­en­tists turned rebel lead­ers), but we are also see­ing cit­i­zens tak­ing on board the work of sci­en­tists and us­ing open-source data, code and map­ping to in­form and em­power them­selves and oth­ers.

When mas­sively large cor­po­ra­tions and gov­ern­ments have an in­ter­est in main­tain­ing the sta­tus quo, then only rig­or­ous sci­en­tific and an­a­lytic work will be able to hold up un­der in­tense scru­tiny. How­ever, when the data does hold, and tells a com­pelling story – then all bets are off in terms of busi­ness as usual.

Mex­ico in­tro­duced a soda tax in large part driven by a suc­cess­ful cam­paign that told how the min­i­mum amount of sugar in a par­tic­u­lar size of soda was 12 tea­spoons. Yes, the tax has since been halved – but only for serv­ings with less than five tea­spoons of sugar.

Since 2006, Google Earth meant the densely pop­u­lated Shia ma­jor­ity was able to di­rectly com­pare and con­trast their liv­ing space against the palaces and is­lands owned by the al-Khal­i­fas, the Sunni-mi­nor­ity rul­ing fam­ily, which data was cited as fu­elling the 2011 Bahraini up­ris­ing.

If there is one thing Dr Google has taught med­i­cal doc­tors, it is that hu­mans have in­nate de­sires for mas­tery, and knowl­edge and will to seek un­der­stand­ing; as all th­ese new dig­i­tal tools are un­locked, and knowl- edge shar­ing be­comes eas­ier, so there are fewer and fewer places to hide.

It’s hard, and be­com­ing harder, in an in­creas­ingly net­worked, in­ter­con­nected and data-driven world to in­voke the con­cept of plau­si­ble de­ni­a­bil­ity when any mis­deeds will be in plain sight, and eas­ily searched by hash­tags such as #Exxonknew.

So, while many punt the re­wards as­so­ci­ated with data- driven ap­proaches, the re­al­ity is that riskaver­sion is equally com­pelling. And the ques­tion al­ways is: who else is do­ing what with the data?

Af­ter all, Mi­crosoft was the first to cre­ate a mas­sive ge­o­graph­i­cal data­base that pre­ceded Google Earth, but con­sid­ered it as a means to the end of test­ing SQL server on a mas­sively large dataset; Google in turn un­der­stood the value of in­for­ma­tion but did not get so­cial, while Face­book did.

Any in­vest­ment in the time, en­ergy and fund­ing is pos­i­tively cheap when com­pared with the risk of los­ing your en­tire busi­ness or profit line.

It’s easy to talk dis­rup­tion, but hard to be dis­rupted. When busi­ness un­usual is the norm, there is no room for com­pla­cency.

Com­pa­nies ad­dicted to high prof­its at the ex­pense of peo­ple or the en­vi­ron­ment need to understand there is hardly any place to hide any more. As any ad­dict knows, ad­mit­ting the ad­dic­tion is the first step to re­cov­ery; for com­pa­nies, ad­mit­ting the re­al­ity of their data-sets is the first step to find­ing new paths to profit.

● Kure is a mar­ket­ing re­search con­sul­tant spe­cial­is­ing in dig­i­tal data.

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