democratising data


The saying: “If you are not paying for the product, you are the product” captures only have of today’s reality. The revelations of the former Facebook employee Frances Haugen paints a much more daunting picture. In her testimony before the Senate commerce committee she describes how Facebook allows users to be manipulated by extreme content with the only objective to drive more traffic, clicks and social interactions to its platform. Welcome to the data driven attention economy!

The volume of information being produced is growing exponentially, management and control of data is becoming more decentralised, and new data driven technologies, platforms and applications—AI, blockchain, crypto-currencies, smart contracts and others—are affecting our lives in ways previously unimaginable.

Without a doubt, data is making our lives materially better in myriad ways. From fast-tracked COVID-19 vaccines to improved market access for small enterprises, data is intrinsic to many of the transformative aspects of modern life.

Yet this progress is not cost-free. Privacy and confidentiality issues, identity theft, the rise of the surveillance state and data hacks are on the rise.

We risk heading towards a data dystopia, where the benefits of the data revolution are only accessible to some, where data is a tool to further the control of authoritarian governments and a small segment of the world’s population leverages our data to enrich themselves while progressively eroding our privacy.

To ensure that we avoid this path, we as a society need to start having a serious conversion about what role we want data to play in furthering human progress.

To be sure, these conversations are already happening. But they’re mostly taking place in the back rooms of Davos, in Silicon Valley boardrooms, on Wall Street and among the secret services of authoritarian governments.

We need to bring the conversation about data from the edges to the centre.

Since the time of the French Revolution, we’ve known that the key to freedom resides in an educated population, and universal literacy has become a central characteristic of well-functioning democracies. Today, in a world dominated by data, society needs universal data literacy.

This doesn’t mean that we all need to be able to construct machine learning algorithms or understand block-chain and smart contract platforms.

We all need to understand the basic language and concepts behind data and statistics and be able to apply them to our world. Without data literacy, we will not be able to exert our democratic right to push our political leaders to enact the laws and rules necessary to govern data in the best interests of society.

We also need mechanisms for broad public participation in discussions around data. To this end, The UN World Data Forum that is taking place this week in Bern, Switzerland, is a good start.

Governments, private sector companies, citizen groups, academia, and many more actors are discussing complex issues, from how to develop statistical capacity and data literacy to humanized AI algorithms to support the Sustainable Development Goals.

We need to bring all people into discussions around data. We need new mechanisms and forums to bring conversations about data to local communities, and empower all of those at risk of being left behind – women and girls, marginalised groups, and others – to have an equal say.

Trust is key, here. To instil confidence that our governments and our institutions will start taking the democratization of data seriously, they need to do more to engage citizens in a dialogue about the use and misuse of data and take steps to ensure that ordinary people reap more of the benefits of the digital revolution.

At the end of the day, modern society cannot function without your data. You deserve to have a say in how it is used and for what purpose. Although 1984 is long past, there’s still time create a data-driven world that benefits all of us.

Johannes Jütting, Executive Head of PARIS21, member of the UN World Data Programme Committee and former member of the UN Expert Group on the Data Revolution

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