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Can data save the world?

There is a compelling argument to unlock more data to improve our lives, but we need to keep the dream of technology in perspective.

The Guardian Activate summit (23 July) hosted a fascinating discussion on the extent to which data can deliver a positive social impact. It simply asked:

Can data save the world?

There was an immediate, unexpected benefit to this project when a lone developer ran a visualisation shortly after they launched showing where their data blind spots are around the world.

The result is they're now developing a strategy to do more work in these unmapped regions. The effect is like running electricity cables into the dark, allowing more and more people - developers, entrepreneurs, innovators, citizens - to plug into the power of that data.

Social data, social good

The social good that can be done with our data was also showcased by a hack day competition.

The award went to Gareth Lloyd and his team who came up with the outline of a web/sms platform to help prevent human trafficking, called Safetrip.

The system aims to allow vulnerable travellers to 'check in' online during their travels by texting to a shortcode, and then friends and relatives can see that they're safe on the website.

Applications like this and like many others around the world, which are being used to leverage social data for social good, are doing their bit to save the world, one app at a time.

And there's no doubt that these ambitious social entrepreneurs, when coupled with an open standard for data, (as championed by Tim Berners-Lee's dream of a semantic web) remains at the heart of a better web for all, where data can be accessible, usable and useful.

The problem with data

But there is a huge unresolved problem which runs in parallel with this mission and it took the young developer on the panel, Gareth Lloyd, to spell it out.

"The Facebook Open Graph API is the biggest semantic web project in the world. And it is in no way an open standard."

The problem is a datum is not neutral.

It is not apolitical and it does not have zero value.

It is, as Gerd Leonhard memorably said, the 'new oil'.

As long as we have competing demands for our data, there is always the risk that it is not working for our good but other’s gain.

Investing data

"What we want to do", said Gareth, "is invest our data in a friendly local bank where we can get small returns, and we know what our investment is doing. But in reality we have surrendered our data to places like Facebook, and they are not a local bank - they are an investment bank".

It is not just Facebook.

There are massive online companies who are creating data profiles of us and using it, not for social impact, but for social capital.

Trapped in a Filter Bubble

The brilliant new book Filter Bubble highlights some of the consequences of this clever behavioural data mapping.

It argues that all the sophisticated online engines we use every day trap us in a search bubble, an echo chamber from which we struggle to escape.

They confine us and seek to continually reinforce our habits and our choices, returning the same thoughts to us again and again.

They use our data not for our own good, not to show us the world, but to lock us in and simplify us until we become mere algorithms.

They refuse to account for simple human behaviour, for change or difference, and so they fight to close out serendipity and cancel further exploration.

In this closed model of the web, we are a set of numbers in a database watched over by machines of loving grace.

Our data is being used to stifle us, not save us.

Your digital soul

Can data save the world?

No, only people can do that.

As Rakesh Rajani from Twaweza said, social enterprise solutions are always 10% tech, 90% human; the web will never be the total solution - it is only the first rung on the ladder of greater participation.

As long as the web is free and open, as long as that first rung is kept low enough for everyone to get on, as long as there are people and companies and governments who want to make data accessible for the best reasons, then there is a chance that we can start using our data to deliver social good.

But we have to be realistic.

Talk of data being the saviour of the world, where digital technology delivers a continual trajectory of social improvement, is not a given.

It will have to be fought for.

As Hans Peter Brondmo said at our Big Data event at NESTA last November: "Keep asking yourself this question: who owns your digital soul?"

Author

Olly Arber

Olly Arber

Olly Arber

Director of Communications

Olly headed up the communications department, leading a team of digital, media, events, editorial and corporate affairs specialists. He was responsible for setting and delivering the...

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