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The data wars have begun: Three ways we can win the war on data misuse and mistrust

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By James Fisher

Netflix’s The Great Hack has exposed the immensely exploitative way in which our data is being used by some companies and foreign governments. While many of us are familiar with Cambridge Analytica’s role in the Brexit and 2016 US Presidential campaigns, it is disturbing to see the way in which our personal data has been exploited to identify and change the opinions of ‘The “Persuadables,” or people who can be influenced by social media ad targeting and misleading or false propaganda to change opinions and views.

Those who have watched the documentary will be familiar with whistleblower Brittany Kaiser’s analogy to a boomerang: “You put data out, it gets analysed and it comes back at you as targeted messaging to change your behaviour”. In the context of the referendum and election, as is rightly raised in the film, this challenges the idea of personal autonomy and the foundations of a democracy may not be as stable as we believe.

While the most valuable tech companies in the world act as the poster children for mistrust in the use of data, we must make sure that these cases of exploitative and unethical uses of public data don’t create a climate of fear around data analysis, which would prevent the true value of data from being realised. It is the collective responsibility of both the data community and the general public to identify and hold organisations accountable to a reasonable and ethical approach to data collection and use, so that we can continue using data for the right things.

“The data wars have begun” (Brittany Kaiser) – but I believe that we can win this war and that there are three things needed to achieve it:

1. A new Digital Social Contract – while we have the GDPR, which was brought into force by the EU, and Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s ‘Contract for the Web Project” (which was launched in late 2018 to define the role governments, companies and users should play in the use of the web and data), we must goes further. We need a framework which we can all embrace to provide the trust society expects.

2. Data Literacy – Just like an enlightened electorate is needed for democracy, a data-literate electorate is needed for the data age – this means having the ability to read, understand, question and communicate with data. With [one-fifth of Brits / one-third of Americans] reporting that they are overwhelmed by political data, having the skills to decipher and challenge the narratives we’re being told is critical to make informed, autonomous decisions about politics and anything that affects or impacts our lives.

Fake news and inaccurate online content have already inspired [24% of Brits / 17% of Americans] to look more closely at how the data is being used to make sure they are getting the real facts. However, with just [one-quarter of Brits / one-third of Americans] reporting that they are confident in their data literacy skills – roughly the same as global literacy rates were 100 years ago – we can, and must, do better.

3. The final element would be creating a robust open platform that can manage and work with data, content and people in a distributed, connected fashion that is transparent, ethical and authenticated.

This goal needn’t be a ‘pie in the sky idea’: the entire foundation of our digital society is based on creating value from the open sharing of data and insights. When we look back at the origins of the World Wide Web, British scientist Sir Tim Berners-Lee conceived and developed the Internet to meet the demand for automated information-sharing between scientists in institutions and universities around the world.

Today, we know that the value of connecting data extends to driving insights across every aspect of our lives. It holds the potential to positively impact our experiences at work, in wider society and in our personal lives. So, we must look at how we can build a new or develop existing platforms to ensure that the data exchange that powers such benefits isn’t exploited.

That said, we are still in relative infancy for data production, collection and analysis – the explosion in IoT devices as our cities and lives become more connected will create unprecedented volumes of data. And yet, the data and information (and misinformation) is already too much for us to handle – and so artificial intelligence (AI) will be critical to augment the ability of humans to ensure the platform upholds its values. This, in turn, introduces new issues – as we know there are biases in the way that humans create algorithms. But a healthy mistrust in AI and increased data literacy will enable a greater number of people to challenge its outputs, recognize potential biases and find ways to address them.

Ultimately, behind the idea of this new data and analytics system must be a commitment to responsible and ethical sourcing of data, empowered by transparency within the platform that enables us to be held to account for our collection of and use of data. Indeed, this will be critical to not just take advantage of the immense opportunity, but to preserve trust.

If we want to avoid stifling our ability to innovate and finding new ways to create value from the data we have, it is clear that we must challenge the mistrust surrounding data analytics and commit to a new reasonable and ethical approach to data collection and use. This is the only way to ensure that we – as citizens, employees and consumers – can continue to reap the benefits of a data-driven society without compromising our rights to data ownership, autonomy and democracy.

(The author is the Senior Vice President, Qlik)

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