Data is neither the new oil nor the new gold…
…and is only valuable when gathered correctly and interpreted accurately
We’ve probably all seen data described as the new oil, the new gold – the new ‘everything’. And the perception that data is a precious commodity isn’t terribly surprising, given that we live in a data-drenched age, where data-themed media stories hit the news almost every day.
Unlike precious metals or oil, it’s easy to obtain and its supply is growing. Last year’s Cisco report The Zettabyte Era: Trends and Analysis for example, forecast dramatic growth in Cisco IP traffic alone by 2021. Meanwhile, according to the Cisco Global Cloud Index, 847 Zettabytes of data will be generated by the same year.
By the way, a zettabyte is 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 bytes.
It’s been estimated that over 100 billion Internet of Things (IoT) connected devices will be connected globally by 2025, churning out vast amounts of data. And every time we use our mobile phones, access our social media accounts or complete an online form, we’re generating data too.
We also live in an age of data fear, where shadowy – and not so shadowy – organisations access and exploit our details for their gain. And perhaps this is partly why data is ascribed so much power and influence.
Making the meaningless meaningful
There’s little doubt that data is potentially one of our most valuable assets, but used without context, it’s worthless. And interpreted inaccurately, it could do more harm than good.
For example, I’ve talked before about traffic, air quality and pollution; issues we’ve examined in several locations across the globe, including Newcastle upon Tyne, Southend on Sea and Swindon. In Newcastle for example, installing smart sensors has enabled us to gather fascinating data on air quality, traffic congestion, and other areas.
Yet these insights mean nothing in isolation. And the technology used to capture them is just an enabler that can’t resolve anything on its own.
What these projects can achieve however, is to increase our knowledge and understanding of the causes of traffic, air pollution, etc., and their effects on communities and people. This in turn can be used to help councils and other organisations analyse the extent of these problems and start addressing them.
For example, if data was available that proved leaving car engines running while stationary was detrimental to air quality and people’s health – as well as being an offence – this might encourage drivers to change their behaviours and turn off their engines. Even better, they might be persuaded to leave their cars at home and try an alternative method of transport; bus, train, bike – or even walking.
So data is neither the new oil nor the new gold. And as more and more negative stories emerge about data, it’s also important to understand that it isn’t the new oil spill either. In fact, it can be a rich and highly valuable resource, as long as we:
- understand that technology alone will not provide the answers
- extract the data we need to improve our knowledge in a specific area, while recognising that others might find value in a completely different or overlapping subset of this data.
- enable new combinations of data sets (both new and old) to be interrogated with new questions – or old ones, depending on the question we need answering
- understand what the data is telling us by interpreting it accurately
- use those insights wisely to promote positive change.
Data is just data
Nothing more or less. That is, until you feed it into something else that extracts new insights…