We have always been storytellers, sharing knowledge and ideas through symbols, words and numbers. Scientists would say this has been key to our evolution.
As we’ve evolved, so has the sheer volume of data and the pace at which it is now spread to all corners of the globe.
At any given day, there are 2.5 quintillion bytes of data created and shared.
Data has now become a critical social and economic resource – a resource so unique that it can be used, reused, copied, transported and processed cheaply without degradation, almost instantaneously.
Our data-driven economy has paved the way for unprecedented ways for data collectors to extract value and meaning from raw data. For companies, it allows them to ‘track’ customers and target them with ‘relevant’ advertising. Such data privacy concerns have fueled major debates in recent times, punctuated by the appearance of Facebook founder, Mark Zuckerberg, before the United States Congress in 2018.
With so much data at our fingertips, how can we make better sense of it whilst at the same time, manage it efficiently, securely and ethically in ways that protect people’s privacy?
In search of these answers and more, we sat down with three different gatekeepers of data: Toby Johnston, Director of Data Governance at Optus, Kevin Kong, Data Analyst at OpenAgent, and Erika Fisher, Head of Privacy at Atlassian.
Working with data: Then & now
More than ever before, data is seen as the lifeforce of innovation. Companies draw upon the wellspring of big data to improve existing products and services or invent new ones.
With so many opportunities at our fingertips, it’s important that we’re continually assessing how to best interpret and present data. Like the ancient times of hieroglyphics, Kong from OpenAgent believes in the power of visualisation: “Data visualisation is a useful tool as it simplifies numbers making them a lot easier to digest.”
When data is visualised, it can also lead to quicker strategy formulation. Kong shares an example of this during a project to determine the time it took a customer to list their property on the market: “By creating visualisations of an average customer’s life cycle, we were able to model the average user lifecycle and apply it to our pipeline. This was important as it helped us determine how long it would take us to realise revenue in our funnel. In turn, it better aligned our advertising spend with revenue expected in the future.”
For Johnston, working at a major telco company like Optus has given him a unique perspective on how data has changed over time: “It can be argued that in a number of ways, data is still being used in the same way it was 100 years ago, such as in newspapers. It’s just the speed, availability and variety of display and delivery methods that have changed.”
He reflects, “How many people talked about unplugging 10 years ago?”
This type of change has reshaped the world both socially and economically. Today’s trade and production activities are heavily dependent on moving, storing and using digital information, often across borders. As the world shrinks down to a ‘global village’ where cross-border data flows contribute around USD 28 trillion to global economic activity, policymakers and companies are now contending with important issues surrounding the value, ownership, transfer and protection of data.
Data management and privacy concerns
When it comes to data privacy, the stakes are high for everyone involved.
Businesses are at risk of having their financial data as well as proprietary information such as research and development data compromised. Individuals are at risk of having their financial data, health records and personally identifiable information compromised.
Companies are playing a bigger role in sparking conversations surrounding privacy as a human right.
Fisher from Atlassian sees data privacy laws as essentially a trade issue: “It’s about making sure that regulators and governments keep the value of their citizens’ and residents’ data contained, to a certain degree. Governments understand that the data of their citizens and residents has value and they’re seeking to either control or retain that value when data moves outside their borders, much like a tangible good would when subject to export controls.”
As we go deeper, the issues surrounding data management and privacy become even more nuanced and complex.
While people are concerned about personal data breaches, paradoxically, many are also not changing their privacy settings on the services they use. Whatever the reasons may be, it’s clear that companies need to develop communication policies that better explain how data is collected and used in simpler language, not legalese.
Data concentration is another concern. Like many resources, data is not equally distributed. Countries and companies that hold more data have a comparative advantage and may engage in anti-competitive tactics such as using algorithms to collude, thus creating new divides.
How do we safeguard against these concerns?
While Australia has made strides to improve its data privacy regulations, the European Union still leads the way with the exemplary data privacy regulation called the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), enforced across the EU’s 28 member states on May 25, 2018.
To date, the GDPR is one of the most comprehensive global initiatives to regulate the collection and use of personal data at the government and private level.
With major security breaches occurring in recent years including the likes of Uber and Ebay, companies are taking heed by exploring how they can bolster the protection of users’ data.
For Fisher at Atlassian, over 10 years of law practice has given her some interesting insights into how privacy has changed over time and where it should be heading.
She recalls that only six years ago, “data use and security were really afterthoughts, and parties felt pretty comfortable if they had some baseline language in the contract. It was ‘tick the box’ and everyone moved on”.
Once people started to make money off secondary uses of data, everything changed.
“New regulations, like the GDPR, mean all of our customers have to review how we handle and secure data. It’s no longer a passive or optional conversation. It’s a legal requirement.”
To Fisher, this is a real game-changer. “I tell our teams all the time: Investing in these requirements is an investment in our business. If you don’t come to the table with good solutions, you’ll get phased out – no matter how good your user experience or design is.”
Looking ahead, Fisher expects to see consolidations of data choices above application layers.
“Much like when you change addresses, you can go to one point of contact (the post office) to have all your mail forwarded. I expect to see data custodians and management solutions that will help people identify where their data is and apply principle-level choices that will then be honoured at the application layer.”
As for specific measures that businesses can take to better safeguard data, she offers the following:
- Develop (or purchase) software with the data lifecycle in mind.
- Manage data responsibly throughout its lifecycle.
- Extend clear information and choice to customers consistently.
- Automate to remove human error where possible.
- Use your IT department’s skills to scale across applications that handle data at multiple points.
Say hello to tomorrow’s data scientist
The headlines keep announcing data as the new oil. If data is a commodity, then those who manage data are data scientists who Johnston believes will need a unique set of skills: “Knowing how to manage data to ensure the right data is in the right place, in the right format, at the right time requires specific skills and knowledge.”
To be successful with data will also require other competencies such as “making complex decisions, managing processes, collaborating, understanding business, consumer and societal needs, and being action-oriented.”
For Johnston, workplace culture plays a vital role in nurturing these competencies. He shares that working with people from diverse backgrounds and experiences at Optus has challenged his “thinking, learnings and approaches to designing systems of responsibilities for data”.
“Fortunately, there are a lot of people here that are interested in these areas so we have plenty to talk about and learn from each other.”
Welcome to a world driven by data, where our desire to extract more and more value from data grows with every second. But as our appetite grows, so too does the risk of privacy breach and exploitation.
For everyone involved, from business leaders, policymakers and government bodies, down to the creators and sharers of data, there’s never been a greater need to ‘handle with care’.