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Is it actually the case that data can be a force for good?

I’m sure you’d agree that it’s impossible to work in the tech, digital or marketing industries these days without constant talk of this thing called data. And the conventional wisdom from most sources is that data can be a bad thing. Just search Google News for ‘data’ and the top links returned will be user data breaches, the darknet, user privacy violations and worse. But actually it’s becoming increasingly accepted that, actually, can data be a force for good?

Of course, there are many good reasons to be wary of data. But at its core, data is just information, and information can help people make better decisions, improve customer service, target marketing messages, optimise processes and prevent the bad guys from doing their thing. Many people feel anxious that data, artificial intelligence (AI) and algorithmic systems are behind the building of a dystopian, Orwellian reality where we are all monitored and tracked, but the use of ‘big data’ also has the potential to improve lives, benefit society and build better businesses.

In its March 2020 article ‘Data: A Force For Good’, the US Chamber of Commerce set out five key areas that demonstrate that ‘the societal benefits of data are manifold—and growing by the day’, making the point that by ‘understanding how data fosters economic opportunity, innovation, and a better quality of life’ we can ‘inform smart policymaking on issues like data privacy and security.’

The five areas in which they believe that data enriches are lives are summarised as follows:

  • Data can be a tool to strengthen fraud prevention and security, empowering businesses to detect and prevent online fraud and authenticate online transactions
  • Expanding financial inclusion through data-oriented solutions such as credit scoring can improve lending and reduce origination costs
  • Digital data-driven platforms can enable small businesses to connect with their customers, or increase sales through optimised payment-processing
  • Data is supporting better public health initiatives, with doctors increasingly able to turn to data to improve the quality of care they deliver and better identify patient risk factors and treatments
  • Data is also driving new developments in AI, providing new ways to combat human trafficking, fight wildfires, connect people to mental health services and improve the lives of people with disabilities

It can be argued that all of these things are evidently true, and would apply even in ‘normal’ times. What became even more apparent over the course of 2020 is that the unique challenges of a global pandemic have enabled modern, digital, data-driven tools to deliver fast, positive solutions to new, unexpected and serious problems.

In his launch communication for the UK Government’s National Data Strategy, UK Digital Secretary Oliver Dowden stated that  ‘data is now the driving force of the world’s modern economies. It fuels innovation in businesses large and small, and has been a lifeline during the global coronavirus pandemic. The fact that governments, businesses, organisations and public services were able to share vital information quickly, efficiently and ethically during the pandemic has not only saved countless lives, but has enabled us to work from home, keep the economy running and stay connected with loved ones during a period of unprecedented disruption’

So, for all the concerns around data security, misuse by the major data companies and the shadow of George Orwell’s 1984, it really does appear that data – treated with care and respect – can be a genuine force for good.

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