Taming the data storm to shape a revolution

Facing the data revolution will from both powerful stakeholders and civil society require thougtful foresight and wide participation. By Emmanuel Letouzé and Carson Martinez

By Emmanuel Letouzé and Carson Martinez

While the Library of Alexandria was once believed to contain the sum of human knowledge around the third century B.C.E, it is now near impossible to quantify and increasingly difficult to store the volume of data generated by humans as a result of the advent of digital technologies and societies. More pieces of data travel per second through the Internet today than were stored on the entire Internet twenty years ago. A lot of them are innocuous and uninformative – photos of food and videos of cats.

But the world is without a doubt facing a socio-technological phenomenon of historical magnitude and significance that fuels on and produces data as its main resource – initially dubbed the “Petabyte Age” and the “Industrial Revolution of Data” and today, known simply as the “Data Revolution”.

While this Data Revolution consists mainly of two main movements – Open Data and Big Data – it is the latter that is understandingly creating our greatest hopes and fears. With a long history of socio-technological phenomena fostering both public good and problems, the world is facing an age-old question: How can it be leveraged to spur positive social change?

Keen and Pentland discussing with the audience

Alex Pentland (l.) and Andrew Keen featured the 2015 Digitising Europe Initiative and faced an extensive need for consultation on data issues (Photo: Vodafone Institute)

Technological advances may often appear neutral – in the sense that their effect depends on how they are put to use: whether to hang a frame or crush a skull, power Christmas light bulbs or turn cities to dust.

But it is never a zero sum game: “Change the instruments and you will change the entire social theory around them,” once wrote Bruno Latour, Professor at Sciences Po. Wendell Wallach’s latest book, “A Dangerous Master: How to Keep Technology from Slipping Beyond Our Control,” echoes and emphasizes Christian Lous Lange’s cautionary words: “Technology is a good servant, but a dangerous master”.

Wallach warns against a possible “tech storm”the plethora of harms that may result from emerging technologies. He points to the critical importance of inflection points and windows of opportunity to alter and shape the course of a technology’s use for good or bad. The pace and scope of change introduced by data is a storm, but we shouldn’t be taken by surprise and reproduce past mistakes.

There are reasons to believe that data as an emerging ecosystem of new resources, tools, rules and players may be at such an inflection point, with a window of opportunity to collectively design its future for the better. After a first few years of highly polarized exchanges, more balanced voices have gained in strength to articulate its risks and requirements.

“Is data a danger to the developing world?” recently Kate Crawford, Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research, asked, noting how data risked “increasing power and wealth asymmetries between those in charge of the data and those who are subjected to actions based on it”.

There are ample examples of this risk having materialized. To date, advanced data analytics has benefited first and foremost the two kinds of bureaucracies that hold and control most powers and data: governments and corporations. But it need not be the case in the future.

hashtag bigdata

Big Data already ranks amogst the most cited words when it comes to crucial aspects of digitisation (Photo: Vodafone Institute)

Socio-political changes and investments are essential

As Data-Pop Alliance Academic Director Alex “Sandy” Pentland wrote a few weeks ago, “Today there is, for the first time, a real choice,” adding: The essential factor that led toward democratization was broad ownership of the resource, which made it difficult to exert autocratic control. The same seems true for data: to avoid autocratic control, citizens must have effective, direct control or data about themselves”.

This will both require and spur massive socio-political changes and investments, but it is not out of reach. The technology is there: It has become technologically possible to set a standard for data stewardship that does not allow even the powerful to subvert data rights except by threat of physical force,” he writes.

Civil societies and communities around the globe – but also some private companies and government agencies – seem to have come to the realization that in the future, people should and will have greater control over how their data are used, both by third parties acting as these “data stewards” and by themselves.

New codes of conduct, ethical principles and legal frameworks will be created. A condition and outcome will be the emergence of data literate citizenries – or rather, literate citizenries in the age of data – individuals and groups with “the desire and ability to constructively engage in society through and about data” (Pentland) which may include (but not be limited to) writing lines of codes.

Above all, this will require creating deliberative spaces where different perspectives can be openly discussed to find common grounds and avoid unnecessary clashes, backlashes and setbacks on the way to making data work for people.

Towards a human-centered data revolution?

Creating these constructive, interactive and informed spaces is the primary goal of Digitising Europe Initiative 2015 – a European-wide discussion on the digital economy of Europe launched by the Vodafone Institute for Society and Communications in partnership with Data-Pop Alliance.

As part of this initiative, multi-stakeholders’ dialogues will be organized over the next 6 months in major European cities – having started November 2015 in Berlin, then in Brussels, Madrid, and Dublin – to debate what getting the data revolution “right” means and entails. We are hopeful that these events will generate excitement, ideas and connections to contribute to crafting a human-centered data revolution.

Emmanuel Letouzé is the co-founder and director of Data-Pop Alliance. He is also a Fellow at HHI, Visiting Scholar at MIT Media Lab and a PhD Candidate in Demography at UC Berkeley. Carson Martinez is studying Neuroscience at New York University (NYU), she is currently working for Data Pop Alliance.

The Vodafone Institute is a platform for cross-sector dialogue. The viewpoints of our guests and external authors do not necessarely represent the official position of Vodafone Group.