Some people call data the new oil. But not Gavin Starks, British co-creator of more than a dozen data-driven organisations and an expert in the impact of data on business, society and culture. As an asset, Starks pointed out in his public lecture at Victoria University of Wellington, data is fundamentally different from oil, since oil diminishes in value as you burn it, while data, once collected, only becomes more valuable.

However, Starks likes to avoid the word ‘asset’, because that is to reduce data to a commodity; he prefers to think of it as infrastructure.

“If you think about this in terms of roads, we build open [ie free] roads to underpin our physical economy. We also have toll roads, we have private roads, we have different kinds of road. But the entire physical economy is built on top of open roads. Similarly, our digital economy is built on top of open networks. Open data and open access to data in underpinning our knowledge economy – our knowledge economy being a really fundamental part of everything we do.

“So my question here is how do we reduce friction to accessing it? It’s not about making everything open, free to everybody all the time. It’s about making it accessible in ways that respect people’s privacy, that respect confidentiality, and that also enable us to build new things.”

Starks was founding chief executive officer of the UK’s Open Data Institute, working alongside World Wide Web inventor Sir Tim Berners-Lee and computer scientist Professor Sir Nigel Shadbolt.

His Victoria University of Wellington lecture was hosted by Professor Steven Warburton, Assistant Vice-Chancellor (Digital Futures) at the University, where Spearheading digital futures is an area of academic focus.

Under the title The future of data: what’s in store for society, culture and innovation?, Starks explored the opportunities and challenges of our ever-evolving digital age, sketching its shape (including artificial intelligence and machine learning) and unpicking some of the questions it poses.

“The data we are producing is obviously vast,” he said, noting we now have ZB as a unit of measure – “I had to check myself: it’s a zettabyte. A zettabyte is a billion terabytes.”

Also growing are the resources needed to power such data, with the internet accounting for about 10 percent of global electricity use. That, said Starks, “is the same amount used to light the entire planet in the 80s”.

Google’s voice recognition is now as good as a human’s. “It’s pretty astonishing, that. One of the reasons they so radically increased the voice recognition threshold in things like Google Translate and got so much better at translating was actually the volume of data, the amount of data they could throw at the problem.”

The theory “had been done decades ago but had only been tested on small sample sets, maybe 3000 documents. Now you can go and find a billion documents”.

Internet and other digital advances mean opportunities “to use technological tools to connect humans and machines on a scale we’ve never had before”, including to tackle global problems such as climate change.

But, as the recent Facebook scandal highlighted, there are many challenges to resolve.

Starks pointed to Germany’s competition authority describing Facebook’s collection and use of data as ‘abusive’. “That’s quite an important and powerful word,” he said.

He compared such data use to colonialism: “The difference here is instead of state actors going into other states it’s companies going into citizens.”

A much better informed public debate is needed, said Starks. “What’s our social contract between the citizen and the state, between the citizen and business, and between business and the state?”

Later he added: “There’s a whole range of conversation that I feel we’ve scratched the surface of but it tends to be very reactive rather than proactive.”

“It’s not about making everything open, free to everybody all the time. It’s about making it accessible in ways that respect people’s privacy, that respect confidentiality, and that also enable us to build new things.”

The Open Data Institute created a spectrum tool to categorise different kinds of data – from closed to shared to open.

“I don’t care if your data is small, medium or big. Also I don’t really mind if it’s personal, commercial or government data. What I do care about is how it’s licensed. Who has access to it, under what conditions? You can think about employment contracts being something closed and in a commercial environment. You can think about medical research that is shared across countries and made use of under very strict conditions that are regulated around. We can think about your Twitter feed, which has public access but has a licence for its usage, right the way through to a bus timetable that is openly licensed. And why wouldn’t a bus timetable? Believe it or not that was a fight. Bus companies didn’t want to publish their bus timetables. Now that’s a completely standard thing to do.”

Starks has also been involved with the Privacy Badger tool that blocks internet spying ads and invisible trackers.

Government policy, he said, does respond but “on a slightly glacial timeframe compared with technological innovation”.

One example is the European Union’s new General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), part of which seeks to minimise data collection to data necessary for the task in hand. “I need to go from here to here; really, you just need the location data, you don’t need to know my date of birth. You don’t need to know my gender [for me] to buy some washing-up liquid.”

Google, said Starks, could make advertising based on the context of the content of a webpage rather than on personal data – “and that actually might give you a better profile match because I’m reading that content because I’m interested in it”.

An audience member asked Starks about the possibility of an economy or marketplace of data where people could take back both power over it and some of its monetary value.

“There’s quite a lot of initiatives trying to invert Facebook – so: ‘Can I have a personal data store that I then license out to whoever wants it?’” said Starks. “Partly that’s a great idea, and it’s partly the direction of travel things like the GDPR are pointing at. But there are really significant challenges. If you’re providing a service to the public, you can get it for free if you give your data, or if you give me 20 bucks a year I’ll keep all your data private. You actually introduce a different class into that based on what people can afford and I think that’s a really important question in the mix.”

Another, possibly bigger, question, he said, is whether people would be able, or prepared, to keep track of the “insane amount of data” involved.

“Instagram updated its app based on GDPR and they didn’t put an option in to say opt out of everything, you had to go through two pages of 300 links to opt out of every single thing individually. Now if you were to turn that around and say you can get 30 bucks a year if you opt into 300 things, who’s going to want to engage with that? Would you then say to a broker, ‘Actually, could you just manage my data for me?’ Then you enter into ‘What does the broker do?’ I think it’s a really challenging question. There are lots of different ways of tackling it. But I think we need a much broader debate about what form of social contract there should be.”

The digital age means “we have more opportunity to make change than we’ve ever had in history”, said Starks.

We have “connected a planet’s worth of people” and they can use the digital tools available to them for good “or they can use them for profit or they can use them for less good. What I would like to do is align the doing things for good and the doing things for profit so they become the same thing”.

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