The Cambridge Analytica scandal continues to rumble on, with MP Damian Collins claiming leaked data had been accessed by Russia, suggesting this could have played a part in influencing the American presidential election.
It’s no surprise then that data is pictured as a dangerous, malevolent tool, misused by a powerful few to control the minds of the many. And last Tuesday a memo sent earlier in the year by Facebook’s chief security officer was published, in which he urged the company to “intentionally not collect data where possible”. If even those in supposed control are shown to be concerned, you can see why there’s an image problem.
But it’s not only Facebook which is bringing the concept of data into disrepute. Twitter’s recent follower purge, deleting 58 million accounts in just three months, also casts technology in a negative light. Yet again, we’ve been fooled by data which apes human characteristics and blurs the line between fiction and the real. And the recent GDPR scrabble, though amusing in its chaos, paints data as something to be feared, a chink in our armour just waiting to be exploited.
It’s true that the world of data and technology is evolving so rapidly that the law and society often struggle to keep up. It’s also true any new, unchartered territory has risks and issues which must be confronted when we come up against them. But what isn’t true is data’s current media perception.
Data has become linked in the public imagination with cheating, cover-ups and threats to security. When people think of data, they think of Goliath multi-nationals with an invisible super-hold on the globe, trading personal information that’s been collected nefariously in exchange for profit and control. It’s seen as the preserve of the powerful, and we mentally align it with the Googles and Facebooks of the world. But we forget how data can be a force for good.
Data is a fundamental part of our economy, with UK tech companies currently growing at 2.6 times the rate of the whole British economy, according to a recent report. Tech sector employment is also growing five times the rate of the wider economy, meaning data is supporting an ever-increasing number of jobs and livelihoods. And these jobs aren’t confined to big, multi-national companies. For so many startups and SMEs, data is their life-blood.
Enterprising startups and their use of data are behind many of the services we take for granted. It’s easy to deride app culture but they’ve provided us with new, smart ways of communicating, sharing knowledge and maximising our time and money. These startups are the new face of British innovation and invention. It’s by recognising the true importance of tech startups and the positive impact of data, both to our economy and our culture, that data will rehabilitate its reputation.
It’s also not true that data involves a loss of control. I started my data-led business, Cazana, as a way of reclaiming power, not giving it away. What frustrated me when buying cars was the lack of information available to consumers. So I sought to fix this, building my company which uses data to empower individuals. And I’m not alone. For many new startups, data isn’t a way of exploiting or tricking others but of sharing knowledge and solving problems.
Data isn’t the enemy, a personified villain we need protection from. To think of it in such a way is misguided and wrong. What it really represents is opportunity, growth and individual empowerment. And as startups, we can prove this.