Data, Too Small a Word for Something So Big

Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II recently stated in her Queen’s Speech ahead of the new Parliament that, “A new law will ensure that the United Kingdom retains its world-class regime protecting personal data, and proposals for a new digital charter will be brought forward to ensure that the United Kingdom is the safest place to be online.”

Data is a major part of government policy, of national interest and of course, international in the guise of GDPR. But if we were to get inside the minds of Her Majesty or the leading political figures such as Prime Minister Theresa May or leader of the opposition, Jeremy Corbyn, I wonder what they were thinking when the term ‘data’ came up?

Data used to be a statistical, mathematical term, or perhaps one that was used interchangeably with information. Then, as the world became more computerised, the word data became synonymous with electronic information. Since then, we’ve seen data everywhere. In almost every aspect of our lives we see how it has become irrevocably interwoven into our lives, to the extent that if it were switched off, we’d be in a world of inconvenience, or more likely pain!

From checking our sports performance on our wearables, to ordering shopping via Alexa, to storing all of our favourite memories in the cloud and all of that before we mention IoT, data is essential to our lives. But you know that. So, let me tell you that when I looked up the term data, I encountered a chart listing the main types of data: Geographical; Cultural; Scientific; Financial; Statistical; Metrological; Natural and Transport. Now that got me thinking, where does Law and Order or National Security fit in? Where does Healthcare fit in? Perhaps into the other categories? Indeed, where does Marketing fit in?

Regardless of the various types, data is becoming something more personal to each of us. We know the risks too, especially if we have children. Their interaction with the digital world is incredible, they learn so much, they play so much, we can’t help but fear for their safety at times. We’re also more aware of how careful we need to be with our own data, primed by the growth in identity theft which thankfully seems to have plateaued. And, we’re also more mindful of the potential value of our data. Can we sell our own data rather than companies making money from it? is a question asked by many.

So there you have it, there’s more data, there are more kinds of it, more applications of it and some of it is becoming much more personal yet the thing is, they’re all lumped together under the one term ‘data’. And maybe that’s not good enough.

With data everywhere and seemingly with everyone, it’s easy to see it all as one and the same, but to do so is seriously sub-optimal for legislators, organisations and consumers. Taking just one example, social media. Here we see one of the most laissez-faire uses of data by consumers, yet it’s an area implicated in some of the darkest aspects of our society from child abuse to terrorism. This cannot be simplified.

How can you reconcile rules around data dealing with those terrible crimes in the same breath as data that may show you an ad for a product you recently searched for on Google. In March, Tim Berners Lee, the widely accepted father of the internet, said that one of the three biggest issues with the internet today is that people have lost control of their data. I think he’s forgetting that there’s just so much data that managing it across every digital touchpoint we encounter could be a task as mammoth as reading all the Ts&Cs we’re presented with; well, at least a baby mammoth. Do consumers really want to add this complexity to already busy lives?

Yes, there are companies who have made their business out of collecting, curating and managing data and if they cross the line, they should be made to pay. But in my experience, the vast majority of them use non-sensitive data to help show us marketing that stands a far better than random chance of being relevant, or even to ensure we don’t see an ad for a product we’ve already bought.

Proportionality is everything but suffers greatly in the ever expanding universe of data we live in. As a consumer, I don’t want to have to log on to countless websites to understand what marketing data they do or don’t have about me. Granted, some do and there are subject access requests that already enable that, and there are the TPS and MPS and AdChoices services. We can and should continue to look for ways to do things better but let’s not class marketing data in the same breath as truly sensitive data. For those who are indeed more sensitive to marketing data there are ways to feel better, but please, can we think proportionally and accept that marketing data that helps you see an ad for some running shoes if you’re into keep-fit is a world away from data that may be used for more serious matters. All data is a serious matter but some uses are more serious and more impactful than others. Data really is too small a word for something so big.

This article was first published on dma.org.uk on June 30. 

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