If data is the new oil, how can a digital island profit?

23 Oct 2017

Image: Boscorelli/Shutterstock

Data should be used to empower those who could use it the most, writes John Kennedy.

There exists oceans of data, mostly historic, but delivered in real time thanks to those little boxes of light we carry in our pockets, the sensors we adorn our bodies with and our modes of transport.

When you say things such as data science, analytics, big data, or even just emphasise ‘data’ in a sentence, most people tend to nod sagely. Look closer and you’ll see that their expressions are kind of blank or timid.

The truth is that most people are generating data in volumes they don’t even realise. They are also actually scared of data, this digital beast that consumes and explains our lives with alarming clarity – maybe too much clarity for those who may have a lot to hide.

In fact, at no time in the history of humanity has so much been known about the people who walk the Earth, and 6bn out of almost 8bn of them carry digital devices with SIM cards. It is quite possible that most people on Earth’s location could be pinpointed in a heartbeat, if you have the tools and processing power. Compared with 20 years ago, children born today are the most videoed and photographed individuals, whose images are (without their permission) shared on social media. It is just the tip of the iceberg of a slew of arguments about ethics and rights, for example.

And yet, the word ‘data’ commands respect and fear in equal measure.

The key to it is understanding why the data exists and what we can use it for. Our fears immediately are stoked by the immense amount of it and who knows what about us, how they could harm us and why. Sometimes, even Google’s motto – ‘Don’t be evil’ – rings a little hollow as our perceptions and imagination only scratch the surface of what could be possible if the tide of data goes the wrong direction.

The internet is already heating cities! What else can data do?

Last week, I was visited by a delegation of civil servants and business leaders from Stockholm thanks to connections I made on a trip to the city earlier this year. The majority of our conversation was about how, through a partnership between Stockholm, Fortum Värme, Ellevio, Stokab and Invest Stockholm, excess heat generated by data centres will be funnelled back into a heatsink that can then be distributed to the city’s municipal heating system. In this way, a data centre with 10MW capacity can heat around 20,000 modern residential apartments.

Could you imagine that? The internet is already heating homes and apartments in a European city!

Press your imagination a bit further and, if you applied it to Dublin, for example, then the excess heat from the 30 or so data centres that stretch the length of the M50 could potentially warm 600,000 homes. But that requires infrastructure, planning and policy, and would probably ruffle the feathers of vested interests and disrupt the generous taxes from diesel and petrol to ever work. But that’s imaginative policy at work right there.

Either way, my Scandinavian guests were curious about Ireland’s impressive digital industry base, and how calculated – but no less imaginative and brave – policies around education that go back to the 1960s and 1970s fuelled this endeavour. I explained also how at Siliconrepublic.com, our approach to explaining science and technology has also been inclusive. We don’t drown our readers in jargon; we cover the broad church of science and technology but always try to make it accessible for all. The business of sci-tech is hard enough and complex to accomplish, but that doesn’t necessarily mean its potential should be hard to understand or should not be used to help people envision how they could contribute or gain.

The key is understanding and a little bit of imagination. Data, and data science as a subset of sci-tech, deserves the same approach.

Last week, while briefing our team of journalists on covering tech start-ups around the world, I used an art metaphor to explain how all these companies quintessentially have the same advantages in the digital age, depending on the quality of connectivity: start-ups the world over ultimately work on the same canvas (cloud) using the same oils (code). I said that each city and community is different and imbues each start-up community with its own characteristic zeal, energy and approach to solving the world’s problems.

Data island of Ireland

When it comes to data, Ireland has impressive advantages.

In the Dublin region, it has one of the largest concentration of data centre giants anywhere in the world, with more than 30 of them operational. New data centres are likely to emerge in Ireland’s regions using renewable energy, with Apple’s potential Athenry data centre as a case in point.

Ireland has some of the largest data companies employing thousands of people, including Google, Facebook, Tableau, Twitter, IBM, Dell, Microsoft – the list goes on.

Ireland’s resurgent science policy of the last 20 years has resulted in world-class research centres backed by Science Foundation Ireland emerging. The Insight Centre for Data Analytics, Connect, Lero, the Irish Centre for High-End Computing, Tyndall Institute, Adapt and CeADAR are powering breakthroughs in the field of data.

The Insight Centre is now home to 450 researchers focused on AI, machine learning, data analytics and human machine interaction, while the Adapt Centre is collaborating with Intel on a machine-learning tool that suggests multilingual keywords to improve global discoverability.

When it comes to data science and AI specifically, companies that that have an AI presence established in Ireland include: Siemens, Zalando, SAP, HubSpot, Deutsche Bank, Amazon Web Services, Salesforce, Ericsson, Intel, Dell EMC, Microsoft, Fujitsu, Mastercard, Nokia Bell Labs, Huawei, LogoGrab and Soapbox Labs, to name a few.

Crucially, Ireland has some of the finest minds engaged on putting Ireland out in front when it comes to managing data and legislating for the impact of data on our lives. These initiatives range from the creation of a Digital Safety Commissioner, to new laws tabled this week that could stop ‘trial by social media’ in terms of huge fines if tech giants fail to move fast enough to remove posts that could jeopardise ongoing trials.

I’ve never envied Ireland’s Data Protection Commissioner, Helen Dixon, for the mammoth task she has, effectively Europe’s de facto data commissioner when it comes to protecting data rights by virtue of the presence of so many global data firms on Irish soil. She is also responsible for educating Irish businesses and citizens of their responsibilities and rights when it comes to the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which becomes law across Europe in May 2018. It is a large undertaking, but Dixon, supported by increased budget and human resources, is going about it with flair, enthusiasm and characteristic professionalism.

Not many businesses realise this, but GDPR will bring with it the rights of citizens to take legal actions against companies that trample on their data rights. Expect a tsunami of lawsuits as citizens become more educated and empowered.

However, there is still a heck of a job to understand the impact that data will have on our society, our economy, our rights and our opportunities.

Some of this could extend down to the education system and how secondary students should be given the tools now to help tell stories through data, visualise data and mould data as if it was putty.

Citizens should be encouraged to retrieve open datasets and data models from public bodies to tell stories, create useful apps and, if and when necessary, stand up for their rights. For example, bright kids could create apps to ensure their grandparents never miss a medical appointment.

Did you ever look back at old Census data of past generations of ancestors and try to visualise their lives then?

Just like all of us are made of stars, we are data, too. And now we are generating more of it. So, let’s get creative.

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John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years