Television, Telex, Twitter, TikTok – an abbreviated evolution of communication technology. We’ve come a long way in the last 100 years. What was once ‘receive’ quickly became ‘send and receive’, and fast forward a few more decades, we are here; send, receive, resend, unsend, unsubscribe, upload, download, sideload. You get it.
With the digital era evolving at a blistering pace, data is unfathomably more complex than ever. Every user, app, system, platform and process generates information and it is someone’s or something’s job to find its value.
In a utopian universe, we harness the power of data to predict outcomes, make better decisions, and ultimately improve lives. This starts with something as small as predictive text, all the way up to complex meteorological modeling. Whilst these examples are at entirely opposite ends of the spectrum, they have something in common, as with all data. They require an input. An information source.
Over time, predictive text not only picks up your usage patterns, but wider changes in language. It’s a machine, and that machine is fed with words. Likewise, meteorological modeling (also known as numerical weather prediction) harnesses vast amounts of datasets to produce realistic and reliable forecasts. These datasets are nothing more than weather history.
Let’s park predictive text for a moment and look a little closer at weather. We hear “since records began” in relation to those muggy summer days, or torrential grey sky downpours. We are comparing new data with old to get a measure of just how good/bad things are. But even with modern supercomputers, meteorological organisations can only accurately predict weather models for six days. So that 14 day forecast you check two weeks before flying somewhere? That’s just a best guess!
Will it always be this way? Unlikely. Weather centres will gather more and more data, not only as time goes on, but as the climate changes around us. Weather predictions have improved vastly over the last few decades (I’m looking at you, Michael Fish – never forget), and as more data becomes available, more accurate calculations can be made.
As our own clouds of information expand beyond comprehension, we are informing our future via something as simple as the tap of an app or uploading of a photo. Data exists in almost every facet of modern life, and our daily actions and interactions are being harnessed by anyone who has access to it, whether that’s through social media, a CCTV camera or wearable device.
It’s estimated that by 2025, a third of all information will be available in real-time thanks to sensors, smart devices, and personal tech. That is billions of sources, creating trillions of data points.
On a human level, this is invaluable:
- Medical data will grow exponentially, aiding research and improving patient outcomes
- We will gain a better understanding of the world around us; weather, climate, famine, disease, pollution
- We’ll learn more about ourselves, our ways of life and our ways of working
But it’s not all good. We’re no stranger to data scandals, fake news and disinformation. With such value being put on data, no-gooders are scrambling to capture data which isn’t rightfully theirs, or to obscure real data with fabricated data (aka fake news). This malicious intent is a clear danger, not only putting our own ‘digital lives’ at risk, but in extreme cases, manipulating the course of politics.
If there is money or power to be harnessed through something, it’s going to be abused. The economic effect of ‘bad data’ is made clear in Pew Research Center’s 2017 findings:
So what can we do as individuals? It’s easy to think that we’re at the mercy of those who ‘own’ our data. In some ways, that is true. But we can take back control through some seemingly sensible steps:
- Be increasingly aware of your news sources
- Only install apps that you know and trust
- Read user agreements, as dull as they can be
- Secure your own data with two-factor authentication
Data security is important, and not just for consumers. Businesses are vulnerable too. If you’re working with a third-party to develop a digital product, a little bit of trust goes a very long way. We only work with languages, platforms, apps and plugins that we trust. If we won’t use a product or service as individuals, we certainly won’t entertain using it with our clients.
If there’s one thing we can tell you to do differently tomorrow, it’s to think about your data, your business’s data and your clients’ data. This isn’t a slap on the wrist. More of a gentle nod. It goes without saying that you should have procedures and processes in place to protect data. But also take some time to think about how you are harnessing the data you have access to. You can do big and beautiful things with data and it doesn’t have to be dirty.
Data builds better products, makes better customer experiences and most importantly, makes the world a better place. It’s certainly not utopia, but together we can shape the future one line of code at a time.