With great amounts of data comes great responsibility – and opportunity

21 Mar 2016

Ireland has been conserving the world’s data in various forms through the ages from Newgrange in 3000 BC to conserving the written word during Europe’s Dark Ages to hosting the latest Facebook data centre in 2016

We are in danger of turning data and privacy into taboo subjects. Instead, we need to direct the conversation towards the potential opportunities of a data-centric world, writes John Kennedy.

There is no doubt about it, these are historic times. As Apple fights it out with the White House and the justice lords of America over the issue of encrypted smartphones and privacy in a digital world, there is no getting away from the fact that, in the decades ahead, our entire lives will be shaped by data. What we do with it and what those we entrust it with will do with it.

Our lives already are shaped in this way – we volunteer huge amounts of data about ourselves to platforms like Google, Facebook and Twitter. We fill in forms on streets or on doorsteps for charity. Everywhere we go our phones leave signals like digital breadcrumbs, an indelible mark on a wireless tapestry.

Apple has a point, our smartphones are indeed treasure troves of data that in the wrong hands could impact on the lives of millions, if not billions, of people. The White House has a point, there is data on these devices that could yield breakthroughs in serious crimes where no stone should be left unturned.

But the search for balance in the debate is proving illusive.

With data comes responsibility

It is frightening when you think about how much data about our lives will be out there in the years ahead: network data from smartphones and smartwatches; diagnostic data from our vehicles; information on how many times we opened and closed the door of our internet-connected smart fridge, data from all the IoT devices that will be in our homes and, of course, the conversations you will have in the presence of smartphones and smart TVs that are engineered to listen.

George Orwell must be spinning in his grave.

The tech giants like Apple and Google are all too aware of these dangers and their own responsibilities. That is why Apple is fighting the fight it has been fighting. Above all, it is about trust.

I remember meeting Google chairman Eric Schmidt during a Google off-site in Killarney several years ago and he made it very clear that the term “don’t be evil” is at the centre of Google’s philosophy on data. “Don’t be evil” was Google’s first catchphrase on the subject of protecting and managing data. It has since updated this with “do the right thing”.

In no uncertain terms, Schmidt said that if, even just once, Google betrayed the trust it had with its users, it is game over.

And that is the precise quandary facing Apple.

With data comes responsibility, and the truth is we are only at the dawn of the data era. What happens now could shape our lives and opportunities for decades to come.

Terms like Hadoop, big data, analytics and privacy are crude stabs at a language new generations of workers are already becoming fluent in.

Ireland has been the home of data down through the ages

Only a complete and total nerd like me sees a beautiful symmetry in history and technology. I find a delightful juxtaposition between how our forefathers in Ireland built the Newgrange monument, which predates Stonehenge and the pyramids, with such mathematical precision that a passage is illuminated during the winter solstice – our first data centre, if you will – and how it stands in the same county of Meath where Facebook is building a €200m data centre that will serve 1.6bn people worldwide.

I draw a line from when during Ireland’s Golden Age it was Irish monks who kept the written word alive on rocky Atlantic outposts (now a backdrop for Star Wars movies) as Europe’s Dark Ages descended to today, where I can only imagine how the lavishly decorated Book of Kells, completed in 384AD, must render on devices like Apple’s iPad Pro in the digital age.

Dublin is home to around 30 data centres, from those of Google to Facebook and Microsoft, as well as entire campuses like those of Digital Realty. Apple is locating an €850m data centre in Athenry, Galway, which, interestingly enough, will be powered by renewable energy.

For me, I draw parallels between this tradition of conserving and spreading data down through the ages to today, where Ireland is no longer on the periphery of Europe, but is at the world’s heart for data.

Recently, the head of Google in Ireland, Ronan Harris, described Dublin as the “data capital of Europe”. Google employs more than 5,000 people in Ireland. I remember the day when it announced its first 80 jobs in Dublin. Google was soon followed by Facebook, which by the end of this year will have 1,500 people just down the street in Silicon Docks, and other born-on-the-web giants like Dropbox, Twitter and LinkedIn, to name a few, have also made Dublin their international home. Established tech players, including Accenture, IBM, Microsoft and Oracle are also busy ramping up their cloud presence in the city.

Not only that, but companies that are at the centre of the ability to sift and understand data are also making Dublin their home, from AOL to Tableau to Pivotal and Quantcast.

Irish start-ups mining the data science opportunity include Datahug, HeyStaks, Mohago, Boxever, Qstream, Aylien, NewsWhip, Logentries, Profitero and Nuritas, to name a few.

If data is the new gold rush, we should be making the pick axes

Ireland has rightly earned its place as the European hub for data, but are we maximising the opportunity?

It comes as no surprise that people view data and privacy as one and the same issue. And yet we produce this data like pollen for the worker bees (bots) of Google and Facebook and Apple to gather and don’t think of the consequences in any great detail.

Ireland found itself uncomfortably in the international glare for the wrong reasons when Austrian data activist Max Schrems took a case against Facebook’s European operations, which are based here, resulting in the end of Safe Harbour, which until last October governed how data was sifted across the Atlantic.

His concerns were given credence and impetus by the Edward Snowden revelations and, in all of this, Ireland’s data protection apparatus was held up to be woefully inadequate to audit the global operations of social media giants like Facebook and LinkedIn.

But this has been a blessing in disguise because it made Ireland concentrate more on data and beef up the Data Protection Commissioner Helen Dixon’s resources with new staff and a new HQ in Dublin. And just in time for a new landscape that will place extra burdens on national data regulators as Privacy Shield, the replacement for Safe Harbour, attracts scrutiny.

If you read the annual reports of the Data Protection Commissioner, much of the complaints and investigations centre around abuses of data, such as aggressive and intrusive marketing, but also data security breaches and some organisations have failed in their duty to protect the data of customers.

This is not likely to change, but is more likely to accelerate as our sense of intrusion shifts from junk mail to instead what companies are doing with cookies and if they are monitoring users outside their remit. This is currently a massive issue in France for Facebook, for example.

But if data is perceived as a threat at times, then we need to also see what Google and others see and treat it like an opportunity too.

What is missing from the debate are voices that highlight the opportunities that properly-managed data can also yield.

This could range from better, more streamlined government services to a unique health identifier that would let GPs communicate directly with hospitals on patients’ behalf and reduce paper trails and delays in hospitals.

At the heart of this is trust. But it is a debate we should not shy away from, but in fact open up.

It is hard to believe it is five years since the Irish Internet Association called on the State to open up its data to citizens and entrepreneurs, especially the data that sits inside the 34 local authorities around Ireland. It was exhilarating to think of the kind of opportunities for entrepreneurs and enthusiastic citizens to model data sitting in State vaults and use it to create apps and tools to serve citizens or build businesses.

Two years ago, I attended a jam-packed hall at Dublin Castle where, in an event organised by Code for Ireland, Irishman Jonathan Reichental, who is CIO of the city of Palo Alto in Silicon Valley, and Code for America’s Catherine Bracy threw down the gauntlet for people to build apps and services based on structured and unstructured data sitting in the vaults of local authorities.

Apps that showed where all of Dublin’s defibrillators were located to an app aimed to help firms locate offices and shops based on zoning data were showcased.

The air fizzled with opportunity and hope. So what happened? Where is the open data debate today?

The data revolution isn’t just about data centres, software giants and smartphones, it is about people. Their data, their opportunities, and their rights.

Connecting citizens to opportunities by opening up data is key.

Protecting citizens, consumers and internet users and better educating them about what they do with their own data is key.

And punishing organisations – from tech giants to governments – that fail to live up to expectations of trust is paramount.

If data is the new oil, the new gold rush, then everybody should stand to benefit. Because it is our data to begin with.

Schmidt was right. The data economy balances on a knife’s edge. Trust is everything. Don’t be evil.

Newgrange image via Shutterstock

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