Harnessing data to make sense of the world around us

We currently inhabit a world where data is the new oil. Every minute of every day, enormous amounts of data are being generated, collated, and shared. Data is snowballing in a manner that is too much for the existing framework of governance and risk management to bear. In addition to the enormity of this data, which forms the foundation of today’s digital economy, another problem has arisen in parallel: that of fuzzy data ethics.

For one thing, there are valuable insights hidden in data that lend themselves to less-than-ethical practices, which include their use to control the narrative or to support the story that suits a purpose. This has immense potential to stoke prejudices that, in turn, corrupt and twist social and economic factors.

We saw this in action with the Cambridge Analytica scandal, and in many ways, we continue to be under the influence of the data and perspectives that we are most likely to support.

Tightening cybersecurity around these data lapses is only one half of the equation- often, we do commit to sharing data on platforms and portals that we don’t really know much about for the simple outcome of convenience- one look at our email spam box will vouch for this.

What we need, then, is an ethics policy that is agile and is easy to apply to several different contexts. This applies to every participant in the digital economy, whether their enterprise is big or small. You can harness data to bring about positive changes and growth, or you can use it in a negative way. Only ethics stand in the way of the balance tipping one way or another.

How Data Is Used To Influence Behaviour Today

Formidable data mining tools, combined with intelligent algorithms, have shaped data into the powerful tool that it is. Personalised, data-based targeting tools have been in the works for ages. Social media, for one, is the mother lode of personal data.

If we take a look around us, we see that data about us is everywhere. Our smartwatches know our heart rate and age and are therefore well-poised to share this information with insurance service providers. In many ways, this is also helpful for us as the end-users because it brings convenience and transparency to a process that is usually cumbersome.

However, how much is too much? Would sharing this data with health researchers be considered a bit much? Would sharing this data with law enforcement be considered too much?

These elements are often part of a lengthy privacy policy that many consumers do not have the time, the inclination, or the wherewithal to read and understand.

Before it looks like everything to do with data is a doomsday phenomenon, let’s look at some positive examples.

Using Data For Positive Outcomes: An Example

An everyday example of how data can have a positive role to play is in a workplace setting, in the context of what matters to every enterprise: productivity. According to Willis Towers Watson’s 2016 Staying@Work Survey, a third of UK employers reported that a dearth of actionable data was a major obstacle in their drive to bring about positive behavioural changes among employees.

But where data is available, employers could harness such data ethically to promote employee wellness and drive better choices. For example, they could collect data on employees’ health states by supplying fitness tracking devices from earlier to reinforce an individual’s natural productivity patterns positively.

  • On a larger scale, this data could form the basis of highly targeted, personalised wellness initiatives that serve an important purpose.
  • Tracking data can then be used to offer them behavioural nudges that help them develop healthy habit patterns.

Assurance needs to be given to employees that their data is safe and secure, particularly if they suffer from medical conditions that they are uncomfortable or unwilling to share with an employer. A via media can be achieved using secure, approved third-party wellness partners or apps that provide information and support tailored to the employee’s specific condition confidentially.

To quote Spiderman’s famous uncle, “With great power comes great responsibility.” In today’s setup, data is power. It must be wielded with care and integrity and with real use-cases that illustrate the impact of data sharing, preferably in a language and format that is more humanistic and less legal.

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