The Great Hack left me a little bruised. The Netflix documentary which explores Cambridge Analytica’s use of data in elections throws up a lot of questions. Was data misused and the public misled in the run up to the Brexit referendum? The fact that the answer is not a straight No should be enough reason for concern, and a clear call to action to look much more closely at our relationship with data and how this is being communicated to us. This warning was made long ago, when the scandal made headlines. It appears not much has happened since.
Data is the omnipresent and most powerful ingredient of our lives. It predicts the weather more accurately than ever before and drives cars. It provides insights into customer behaviour allowing retailers to tailor their offerings. It prevents fraud by looking at credit card spending patterns and identifying discrepancies.
Data also powers and influences elections. It knows what we like and dislike, and it tries to make us agree – or disagree – with politicians or political parties. It knows our preferences and assures us that we are right – or it tries to convince us of the opposite. Our voting decisions are less and less based on politician’s personalities or their parties’ programmes. They are based on how much data about us they have access to.
This access is currently largely unprotected and often without the knowledge of the person concerned. As a consequence there are many calls that data (its collection, processing and ownership) should be re-appraised and regulated more rigorously. Some also say that data can be turned into weapons. If we want to prevent this from happening, we should not leave it to the organisations which collect our data and make them accessible to others, to define where their boundaries are. Regulation as well as business models need to focus on empowering but also protecting each one of us.
This will take time and the outcome is unclear. But what organisations can start changing straight away is the way they talk about how they use our data. Currently, a common heard narrative is “we use data for good”. But what does this really mean? Does it benefit humankind and societies? Or does it primarily benefit organisations financially or politically?
Whatever it is, their reputation will suffer if they are not honest with us. Technology is fundamental here to protect and maintain reputation. It can help companies communicate more transparently and help their audiences distinguish right (legit information) from wrong (fake news). Tools help companies reach their relevant audiences transparently and with impact. As much as data can be used to mislead and manipulate, it can be used to educate and empower.
When we focus on the positives of technology, we can have a pragmatic discussion how we best deal with it. Data-driven politics and political campaigning will be the norm soon. We should start thinking about if – and how – we remain in the driver’s seat.