Data will set you free
Global citizens can do the heavy lifting in an interconnected world
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. www.datamyna.com