ishmaels corner

Changing data’s image problem ...


By Chris Owen, Director UK


The over-riding media narrative around personal data is that its collection is a bad, sinister entity either grabbed for a company’s own (often commercial) gain, or used nefariously to track and monitor us through our day. It’s one of foreboding and anxiety. But the opportunities with data are vast, and if we (as an individual and as a society) are to fully benefit, then the lens of negativity and fear needs to be removed.

It’s important when considering perspective that challenges stem from society having a recognised negativity bias — demonstrated by the study run by McGill University in Canada (outlined here). It highlights how we have a tendency to find negative news more fascinating than good news. This makes us read more, and share it more – the latter being exacerbated by social media platforms where sharing such fascination is as simple as clicking a button, (and as a result, the old adage of bad news travelling faster than good has never been truer).


Opening Pandora’s Box

Once the genie of a mistruth is out of the bottle, there’s a fundamental inability to correct inaccuracies to the same degree that the negative news spread in the first place. It moves so swiftly, that the wildfire can’t be extinguished fast enough, and once established, the narrative and perception are near impossible to shift. As an example, for over a decade there have been stories about KFC breeding (and subsequently using), genetically modified chickens — all of which are hoaxes, and all of which crop up every few years. However, it’s such a common recurrence that the company now carries an explicit denial on its website, even though it’s been debunked on numerous occasions.

In “Folk Devils and Moral Panics”, Stanley Cohen identified the former as referring to how the media define a group, behaviour, or condition as being a societal threat. To this list we can certainly add ‘technology’. The hysteria with which these ‘folk devils’ are vilified and attacked (now across multiple platforms, by myriad influences), doesn’t wane.

And if you look at how the media positions and discusses the impact of it, ‘big data’ sits within this technological perception neatly.


stylus crossing out "facebook" on smartphone screen


Seeing the whole picture

But this doesn’t tell the whole story. There’s far more to data than the hysterical.

Let’s look at an example from late 2016, involving DeepMind and the Royal Free London Hospital, involving the company’s Streams technology being used to address the problems of acute kidney injury (AKI) — a condition which subsequently leads to fatal kidney failure. Identification of early warning signs is critical, given patients’ lives are at stake.

The partnership saw DeepMind interrogate huge amounts of historical data of patients’ test results to start to map out the commonalities in those whose AKI condition developed into more serious complication. In handling this data, nursing staff were alerted to patients who were showing early signs of deterioration, allowing them to take urgent action. This saved not just time, but lives. The potential has huge, positive implications.

However, the positive narrative was unable to come through once the tabloids had instead picked up on patients’ data being analysed by one of the giant, evil behemoths — Google, (despite DeepMind being a separate entity), and ‘the NHS is sharing your data with Google!’ became the story. There wasn’t time to go into the detail of the benefit, once the lens of the negative was firmly entrenched.


The need for public acceptance of data

Elsewhere, data plays a vital role in making society function — and does so safely. Mass modelling of movements around major public venues such as sports stadia and transport hubs can predict how crowds react in an emergency or terrorist attack. Again, this use of data can literally save lives.

As the source of data increases, the need to manage public awareness and appetite will exponentially increase in turn.

Of course, there is an onus on those involved to be transparent and not break into jail. The recent farce with the Met Police supplying facial data to Kings Cross station was perhaps one of the most irresponsible, damaging goals in the field.

The opportunities afforded by data and the tools we have at hand to analyse and drive insight from it are too big to have them undermined by an overwhelmingly negative narrative about data in and of itself. If we’re to fully realise the opportunities, it needs to be understood and accepted by the public, and that will require a fundamental shift in how stories about data are told and shared.

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