The human side of the data revolution

By Thornton May Apr 18th 2017
The human side of the data revolution

We the people are the source of most of the massive data accumulation now taking place. But are we being left out of the equation?

For over a decade, data has been at or near the top of the enterprise agenda. A robust ecosystem has emerged around all aspects of data (collection, management, storage, exploitation and disposition). And yet in my discussions with Global 2000 executives, I find many are dissatisfied with their data investments and capabilities. This is not a technology problem. This is not a technique problem. This is a people problem. 

Those enamored of data often want to eliminate the human from the equation, but it can’t be done. And so, as climate science considers the impact of man on the environment, data science must wrestle with the inverse: the impact of data on man. 

You can fill a library with books talking about the data revolution. There’s Viktor Mayer-Schönberger’s Big Data: A Revolution That Will Transform How We Live, Work, and Think; Steve Lohr’s Data-ism: Inside the Big Data Revolution; Malcolm Frank, Paul Roehrig and Ben Pring’s Code Halos; Bruce Schneier’s Data and Goliath: The Hidden Battles to Collect Your Data and Control Your World; Christian Rudder’s Dataclysm: Who We Are (When We Think No One’s Looking); Andreas Weigend’s Data for the People: How to Make Our Post-Privacy Economy Work for You; and my very own The New Know: Innovation Powered by Analytics. 

These are fine works of nonfiction focusing on the potential and perils of a rapidly informating world. “Informating” is a term coined by Shoshana Zuboff in her book In the Age of the Smart Machine (1988). It is the process that translates descriptions and measurements of activities, events and objects into data/information. “Datafication” is a synonym for “informating” — the trend associated with turning many aspects of modern life into machine-readable data and transforming this information into new forms of value.  

What about the muggles?

The question that has not received much attention in technology circles is how and via what time frame the masses (a.k.a., the general public, regular humans, the muggles — those who are not trained, credentialed or particularly facile in data management and use) will respond to the accumulation of massive data. Sociologists and anthropologists need to weigh in here. 

Some of the most interesting thinking about the impact of all this data is happening in literature. In Circles, David Eggers gives us a fictional portrayal of what a totally informated workplace might look like. It is not a pretty picture. I think this is a must-read for those who seek to understand the human side of the data revolution. 

Some scholars contend we are in the middle of a personal-data gold rush (see “Personal Data: Thinking Inside the Box,” by H. Haddadi, et al.). It is not obvious that the beneficiary of this gold rush will be the source of the data gold — people. How many average Joes realize that if they are not paying for the service, they are the product? Data “accumulation is generally occurring with minimal consideration of us, the individuals at the heart of this process,” as Haddadi and his fellow researchers write.  

Marc Andreessen, venture capitalist and much-heeded voice for all things tech, compresses the consensus that it is generally not practical to withdraw completely from all online activity into four words: “We have no choice.” Individuals have to be online. And when they go online, they generate data. Do they know how to manage and protect that data? Do they know the options available to them for becoming protected? 

I envision that at some time in the not so distant future a federal agency will emerge — akin to Health and Human Services — devoted to protecting citizen data. Responsibility for data protection — what there is of it — is now fragmented across several federal agencies. Perhaps the new Citizen Data Protection Agency will resemble Homeland Security — a throwing together of various parts of the federal bureaucracy. 

When (and for whom) will the benefits materialize?

In the early days of the data revolution, most of the commentary was very positive, focusing on how data would make the world better: how smart cars would materially reduce the number of traffic fatalities (17,775 in 2016, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration), how smart investing would increase rates of return, how smart medicine would customize treatment plans, how smart education would personalize lesson plans for each student, how smart shopping would create memorable customer experiences, etc. 

Currently the pendulum of public opinion appears to be swinging in the direction of concern. This may be because the promised benefits of data exchange (I give you data, you delight me with services or products specifically designed for me) and the futuristic visions of a better world have failed to materialize.  

Data is everywhere, both in the foreground (smartphones, tablets, wearables) and in the background (road traffic management, financial systems). I agree with those who believe that human-data interaction is important enough to become a discipline unto itself. 

In your organization, who is thinking hard about the collection, analysis and actions associated with the human side of the data revolution?

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