Tuesday 3 May 2016

The Dark Side of Data

When business unusual is the norm, there is no place for complacency

There is no place to hide anymore. Companies, countries and governments are increasingly challenged by open, accessible data and maps.  

Entertainers have always made for compelling viewing, but who would have thought an 89 minute long, academic YouTube video entitled Sugar: The Bitter Truth by a Professor of Endocrinology would be viewed over 6 million times?

Who could ever have imagined that the pinnacle of German automative engineering, Volkswagen, could be brought to its knees by research undertaken by a small, albeit highly specialist academic centre?

Oppressive regimes in a number of countries never considered blocking satellite imagery from Google Earth until the data-mapping genie, i.e., maptivism (using Google maps in conjunction with crowd-sourced data from social media) was out of a number of bottles. 

But in a world in which Libyan rebels could talk openly of "fighting with Google Earth" and when queried about this say, “Why not?” and their biggest issue is not a dearth of data but so much data that phones became “too hot to touch”, it is evident the issue is not only of lack of data, but of what to do with the data.

Even Baidu, the Chinese search engine giant, has recently used its tracking database of 700 million users to generate a map of China's "ghost cities"map of China’s “ghost cities” which indicate very low numbers of people living in many cities despite a high number of houses - and which low populations are not due to the seasonal variation of tourism, given the length of time over which the data was tracked.

As much as humans are motivated toward entertainment and connectedness, as any parent knows, we also crave answers to the age-old question, “Why?”

We are not simply seeing the rise of citizen scientists (or computer scientists turned rebel leaders), but we are also seeing citizens taking on board the work of scientists and using open-source data, code and mapping to inform and empower themselves and others.

When massively large corporations and governments have an interest in maintaining the status quo, then only rigorous scientific and analytic work will be able to hold up under intense scrutiny. However, when the data does hold, and tells a compelling story – then all bets are off in terms of ‘business as usual’.

Mexico introduced a soda tax in large part driven by a successful campaign that told how the minimum amount of sugar in a particular size of soda was 12 teaspoons. Yes, the tax has since been halved – but only for servings with less than 5 teaspoons of sugar. 

Since 2006, Google Earth meant that the densely populated Shi’a majority was able directly to compare and contrast their living space against the palaces and islands owned by the al-Khalifas, the Sunni-minority ruling family, which data was cited as fueling the 2011 Bahraini uprising. 

The striking and appalling images of concentrated animal feedlot operations, and the toxic-looking sludge of cattle feedlot manure lagoons or cesspools, taken from publicly available satellite imagery, have been stitched into compelling images by one artist and fed into an increasing debate as to how the food system works – or doesn’t. 

Although strict “ag-gag” laws are in place, the location and imagery of feedlots have been popped into a readily accessible map layer.

Want to track the state of the world’s forests? Why, there is a map and data layer for that: Global Forest Watch, developed through key partnerships.No longer will the Forest Stewardship Council  need physically to visit the Karelia Forest before suspending IKEA’s certification as they did in 2014, through ascertaining that Swedwood had been harvesting old-growth trees in the protected regions of the Russian forest. 

Now, forests can be tracked in near real time via satellite and compared and contrasted to well-validated base data.  

If there is one thing that Dr Google has taught medical doctors, it is that humans have innate desires for mastery, and knowledge and will seek understanding; as all these new digital tools are unlocked, and knowledge sharing becomes easier, so there are fewer and fewer places to hide.

It’s hard, and becoming harder, in an increasingly networked, interconnected and data-driven world to invoke the concept of plausible deniability when any misdeeds will be in plain sight, and easily searched by hashtags such as #Exxonknew.

Whether a business is unwittingly duped or actively engaged in nefarious activities (what precisely did Exxon know, and when?), or simply not willing to engage in trying to answer complex questions, you are faced with an ever-dwindling capacity to disclaim direct knowledge or accompanying responsibility. 

After all, if all you need do to prove that a large proportion of drivers are not adhering to the speed limit in your street is to download some code from code from Github and use this in conjunction with video taken from a high vantage point with your cellphone (and this is but one of many such shared resources), then no business can afford to be complacent.

On top of this, whistleblowers have the ability to skirt surveillance and censorship through Tor, the promise of readily accessible balloon-powered internet, and easy-to-use encryption software.

So while many punt the rewards associated with data-driven approaches, the reality is that risk-aversion is equally compelling. And the question always is: who else is doing what with the data?

After all, Microsoft was the first to create a massive geographical database that preceded Google Earth, but only considered it as a means to the end of testing SQL server on a massively large dataset; Google in turn understood the value of information but did not get ‘social’ while Facebook did.

Any investment in the time, energy and funding is positively cheap when compared with the risk of losing your entire business or profit line. It’s easy to talk disruption, but hard to be disrupted. When business unusual is the norm, there is no room for complacency. 

Companies addicted to high profits at the expense of people or the environment need to understand there is hardly any place to hide anymore. As any addict knows, admitting the addiction is the first step in recovery; for companies, admitting the reality of their data-sets is the first step to finding new paths to profit. 

This article was first published in the Saturday Star Marketing and Media pages on the 28th November 2015 and republished here with permission

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