We Understand Data All Wrong

Several years ago, the Economist magazine coined an expression that many quoted since making it the new standard wisdom: “data is the new oil.”

From this one phrase sprung hundreds of thousands of commentaries, analyses and a whole new way of thinking. Data is the 21st century’s sexiest commodity and needs to be ascribed a value and monetized.

Talk with bankers and some will say that data will one day become as valuable as the money they hold on behalf of others. Some accountants have developed accounting models that factor data into the valuation of companies.

Organizations of all sizes and in all sectors are scrambling to understand how to monetize data, even if its ownership is not always clear.

All these efforts seem to be going in one direction, with little or no analysis. It seems almost a given that as the digital business revolution gathers pace, data will sit alongside money as pillars of ascribed value.

One person who is questioning this idea is a U.K. digital activist, entrepreneur and author Tony Fish, who is currently in Australia on sabbatical.

While in Australia he is also helping set up the Australian operations of the British personal data management company Digi.me where he is a board member.

Fish recently wrote a blog challenging the way we are approaching data, giving it the headline: “Data is data. It is not oil or gold or labor or anything else!”

His contention is that much of the misunderstanding around data comes back to our inability to find the right words and language to describe its function in a data-driven digital world.

Data, said Fish, has many different definitions and a quick search delivers over 50 of them, each with individual “labels” and “biases.”

It is only when a verb is included, such as “big”, “meta”, or “real-time” that any clarity is achieved. The point is that not all data is created equal and its value lies in its context.

“As much as we would like to explain data and its functions with a metaphor or analogy – it is unique,” said Fish.

“Data is closer to the discovery of a new core element for the periodic table with new properties; a new energy concept for quantum that allows us to understand something we could not explain; a new model for dark matter.”

Fish argued that every model we use to explain data fails.

“Data is not oil, we don’t mine or refine it,” he said.

“Data is not gold; there is more data than there are atoms in the universe. Data is not labor, it does not pass with time.”

Neither is data a commodity, said Fish, and even though many people try to claim ownership of data it cannot be controlled and “you lose nothing when you copy it.”

“Our digital world is too radically new and different to be fully conceptualized, understood, explained and honored by the metaphors we apply to them, limited by words that have the wrong meaning. Therefore, it is time to build a new word set!” said Fish.

“As an example, data storage is not the same as it was when we had an economic model for the storage of documents in 1980. In 2018, digital data storage has a relationship and content to security, access, rights, liability, control, sharing, conflicting national compliance laws and privacy changes. However, we continue to use old economic framing, thinking and words to describe these new data functions that then fail.”

Fish also used the example of the word “trust,” which has a range of new meanings in a data world that he says change the understanding of its meaning.

Similarly, the idea of privacy has an entirely new meaning which is “broken” in the context of data.

“Do people want privacy to avoid exploitation and danger? To mitigate their sense of vulnerability?” Fish questioned.

“Are people willing to trade privacy in order for the control to manipulate their data and live out their life fantasies in a digital world? Are people so addicted to the control they have in shaping their digital lives, that a privacy, security breach or fraud brings them back to their analog life?” Fish continued asking.  

“A person owns (maybe) their body, mind and thoughts, but do they own their data?”

In reality, the answer to the above question is “no”, said Fish. All that can be owned are the machine and software where data is stored, with different players having differing access rights.

“In a new data age, we need to establish a new concept in digital and data that builds appropriate boundaries, each with their own rules, rights and responsibilities,” said Fish.

An initial way forward, he suggested, is to look to companies “who have ideas of privacy, consent, rights, ownership, sharing, storage as core functions.”

“Like Hoover became a generic name for a function, Google for search, Text for messaging and many others. Should [the digital community] start to adopt names of companies, which have a pure single function that delivers context and relationship in this new data world to allow us to describe functions in a clear and crisp way?” Fish questioned.  

“Would such adoption get us to value, models, growth and fun a whole lot quicker; avoiding the words that prevent us from agreeing to the same solution because we insist on using the same language with different words?”

Instead of agreeing with the Economist that “data is the new oil” as a given truth, perhaps this is a discussion worth having.