By Gavin Artz – July 5th, 2013

 

BIG DATA

Photo: Marius B (Flickr)

“Liberty, equality and fraternity” has been the conceptual catch cry for our modern democratic experiment. It is an experiment which we have been diligently failing at for the last few hundred years. Yet, this experiment is so successful that we continue with it, while being aware of its flaws. Perhaps, the best demonstration of how successful this experiment has been is that we can freely write about liberty, equality and fraternity and for that writing to no longer be banned; it has become an accepted political and social position. The flipside of this though is that these three words have lost much of their impact. As citizens in a democratic society, we do not expend much social capital exploring and applying these concepts to our contemporary experience.

I can understand why this lack of public exploration has occurred over last twenty years. We are running like crazy just to keep on top of the fast pace of scientific and technological change, new business models and the skills needed to work in the new economy and the global context we find ourselves in with regard to the environment and economics. The irony though, is that it is these very concepts of liberty, equality and fraternity that would help us navigate this time of complex change. A further irony is that we have the resources at our disposal to participate as citizens in ways that have never existed before. We have sophisticated communication technologies, which includes putting the capacity to publish in the hands of most people. We have access to vast amounts of information, both opinion and research. We also have widespread, high-level education that allows us to make sense of this information and to apply it in our daily lives. As citizens, it has only been over the last ten years or so that we have had access to information, and the capacity to make sense of that information, at levels that were once only the preserve of political and economic leaders.

This puts us in the unexpected situation where the purity of information is as indispensable as the purity of a water supply if we are to have a stable society. Governments are actively tackling this through open government initiatives. In Australia the annual Govhack weekends, where government makes data available to coders, demonstrates that we understand the importance of access to information in a democratic process. Access to this information though relies on government working with business and we are seeing social media, in all its various forms, drawing business into the realms of the social and cultural. This currency of information changes the relationship between government, business and society. TechAmerica Foundation’s “Demystifying Big Data” report tells us that 85% of the world’s data is unstructured, that is, it is created by us – photos, email, tweets, etc. We are collectively generating huge amounts of valuable information, but it needs to be aggregated and structured to unlock that value. This unlocking occurs in the businesses that provide the social and aggregation platforms. This means much of our data passes from us to business at some point. This though is only part of the story, we need to add structured data from government, business and academic research if this story is to be complete. If we are to be informed participants in a democracy, then it is necessary to have these social and aggregation platforms open to us, but we also need access to data from government, business and academic research.

This raises an interesting question for us as citizens. As a democratic society we give a licence to business to trade. We have a social contract, where businesses provide us with goods and services and, by doing this, fulfils its vital role in society. We provide this licence because we understand business is incredibly important. The economy underpins our capacity to have a culture and civilisation, but are our current social contracts up to the job? Is our sense of fraternity inclusive enough to allow equality and liberty?

We are at a crucial moment in the transition to an economy driven by information. It is at this point where it has become incumbent on us to review the licence to trade and to redefine the expected levels of fraternity from business and our governing institutions. The revelations coming out of the U.S. with regard to the uncomfortable relationships between social media companies and government surveillance that occurs under Prism and the NSA, demonstrates what can happen when we do not reconsider the relationship between government and business during this transition; when we do not think through the implications of our data being in the hands of business. What is at stake is our ability to function as successful democracies, but it is not just the success of democracy with which we need to be concerned. As business moves into the social realm, there is a higher ethic required of them, there is greater trust placed in their hands and they need to seek a successful balance between social benefit and commercial profit. If we undermine this relationship between government business and the citizen, if we lose trust in the capacity of business to safeguard our data and provide a pure source of information, then the commercial opportunities also dry up.  We need to be seeking a greater sense of fraternity between government, business and the citizen if we are to ensure an economy that will underwrite liberty and equality.

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