Public data is a hidden treasure

Amy Webb is one of the world’s foremost technology experts. She thinks that the Nordic countries are sitting on treasure chests of public data. The question is who should carry the costs and the work of digging them up – and take responsibility for the content once it is up.

“A revolting, rat-infested cesspool. No human being wants to live there”.
Donald Trump cannot possibly have meant Amy Webb’s neighborhood when he once fired a broadside at Washington DC’s neighboring city Baltimore. Based in a luxurious house overlooking the city she is writing books on technology, manages the Future Today Institute which is publishing a yearly report about technology trends and is preparing her lectures at New York University’s Stern School of Business.

The last time I saw Amy Webb was in March. She was on stage at the large tech conference South by Southwest in Texas That has become a yearly fixture. Everybody is trying to look into the future. She is one of the most ardent observers.
“The clearest trend this year: Privacy is dead”, she said.

Data can be use to solve the problems of the world

“It looks as if I was right”, she says simply from the sofa.
“Every time we use one of our gadgets, we produce heaps of data. The tech industry is gathering and using these data. It probably feels safe when you draw your blind and go to bed, but in principle we are being watched all the time. That is not necessarily something bad, but we have to be aware of it and think of what consequences it might have”, she says.

That is precisely what I want to talk about with her. The value of data. Not the fact that Google, Amazon, Facebook and Apple have become the richest in the world by developing service that people want in exchange for knowing everything about them. That’s common knowledge. It is also well known that these companies do not always take good care of these data.

What is lesser well known, or at least is given less attention, is whether data can create value apart from making a few people filthy rich. How data can be used to solve the mystery of cancer, stop radicalization, combat global warming or produce more food for a growing world population. Data can be used to solve the problems of the world.
If they are accessible.

Amy Webb is leaning forward. Her leather jacket is creaking. This is where the battle of values is raging.

Transparency is the solution

“We are having a heated election campaign here in the US. Recently one of the presidential candidates pledged to fight for the right of every individual to own his or her data. That was met by a lot of eye-rolling in Silicon Valley. Someone even argued that people shouldn’t have any access at all to their data because they would not understand what they see. That is an extremely negative view of humans. But perhaps it is too simplistic to talk of private ownership of data in the same way one may talk about owning a cushion. It is more rewarding to fight for transparency. It is clearly feasible to let people have a say in deciding who should have access to their personal data and what they are being used for. The tech companies will roll their eyes some more and claim that it is not possible, but it is” she says.

But perhaps it is too simplistic to talk of private ownership of data in the same way one may talk about owning a cushion.

Maybe such a democratization would lead to more data being accessible to those who are working with research and development. For them, free access to the enormous amount of data stored by the big tech companies, would be a big, big step forward. But fortunately, these companies are not the only ones with capacity to collect and manage data. They have just been quick at doing so.

Norway, for example, has a treasure chest filled with public data. Possibly the world’s best health data, with a large amount of information all the way down to the level of individual from cradle to grave over a very long period.

But, just like most treasure chests, most of these data are buried, most of them in various silos, in varying formats where they are inaccessible for researchers who could use them to prevent and cure or to entrepreneurs which could use them to build health services and -products and to create workplaces and values for that matter. The question is who should carry the costs and the work of digging up the chest – and take responsibility for the content once it is up. Who is to decide what is a cost-worthy use of data and therefore should be prepared? Who is to be given access? Which role should the public domain play?

“Norway can do it”, Amy Webb says.
“Or Finland, Sweden or Denmark. The Nordic countries are extremely advanced compared to most other countries in the world. If there were to be a pilot project with openness transparency and participation in a good way, I believe it must be carried out in one of the Nordic countries.

Isn’t there a certain risk with that?

“Yes.I am giving advice to some big companies and what I see is that everybody is very excited by the possibilities to collect data about their users. But worryingly often they forget to put the important questions; what is it that we are actually collecting? How are we going to make use of it? Who is going to have access? When? What if it becomes difficult to keep it inside the country?
All this is already very complex and soon everybody must relate to both biometric data and behavior data to boot. The world needs more data engineers and the data engineers we have are working with safety and ethics and not just costumers’ satisfaction barometers” she declares preparing for landing:
“Risk does not mean that you must not do it. As a rule, the willingness to handle risk is what leads to profit, in the end”.

These are some of the main trends in the latest report from Future Today Institute: Tech trends in short

Joacim Lund

Joacim Lund
Technology commentator, Aftenposten
Years in Schibsted
My dream job as a child