By Dana Eitzen, corporate and marketing communications executive at Canon South Africa

“This is a serious moment for the web’s future. But I want us to remain hopeful. The problems we see today are bugs in the system. Bugs can cause damage, but bugs are created by people, and can be fixed by people.” – Sir Tim Berners-Lee

 The data revolution was never going to be without its challenges. The justifiable concerns around the exploitation of personal data are not going away any time soon. Many recent headlines have focused on the use of our personal data to influence democratic elections and referendums, fuel “fake news” and make millions in advertising.

The resulting fallout has been entirely legitimate. But we shouldn’t start by simply demonising big data with Big Brother references and warnings about the potential for social control or unsavoury commercial practices.

From smart cities across Europe to revolutionary changes in healthcare and environmental policy, it is not an overstatement to say that big data holds the key to many of our futures. An excellent example of this is the current smart city initiative from Copenhagen, which developed the Danish Outdoor Lighting Lab (DOLL) through a partnership with Cisco and local telecommunications group TDC.

This outdoor lab involves 40 outdoor light solutions as well as multiple parking, waste and environmental sensing solutions converged on over 10 kilometres of road. This technology connected the city’s infrastructure over a common network and data layer, which improves operational effectiveness by allowing municipal agencies to monitor, control and optimise each solution, in real-time, to meet citizens’ needs.

The use of data to connect citizens – without compromising their personal information or safety – is a key part of how data can be used constructively and seen in a more positive light. Further afield, in places like Estonia for example, big data is being used to identify fraudulent activities relating to tax evasion or money laundering. In the UK, it is helping shape plans to redevelop London’s public transport.

But what about when personal and sensitive data is in question?  Data-led initiatives are most commonly demonised in cases where the compromised information is of a delicate or significant nature. Medical records are a notable example and scandals throughout Europe of governments selling patients medical records for profit have been making headlines for the past decade.

The ARNO Observatory in Italy took a novel approach by combining and aggregating masses of patient data for administrative uses, rather than commercial ones. As a result, users benefitted from improvements to services including general practitioners’ prescriptions, hospital admissions and discharges, diagnosis tests and diagnostic examination prescriptions.

The information gathered was also linked to other data flows to build comparable epidemiological and economic indicators. This meant that personal data was not only being used to help the people who it belonged to, but also to help future generations by identifying the rising prevalence of certain diseases, where they’re most likely to arise and how much they’ll end up costing the system.

Personal data can also be used for breakthrough scientific discoveries that improve human understanding of essential theories. The Human Genome Project (HGP) was one such long-term example that was based on a huge alliance of organisations and data across  several universities, laboratories and international partners around the world.

The project concluded in 2001 with HGP researchers achieving the amazing goal of deciphering the human genome. This has had countless benefits for biologists studying disease and agriculturists studying genetically-modified crops, not to mention the impact on what patients expect from medical help in the future. But it wouldn’t have been possible without the cross-collaboration of hundreds of different parties sharing and learning from their data.

The growing trend towards centralisation of medical data may cause concern, but as long as privacy and security can be maintained, it is certain to play a big part in the development of new treatments, add to our growing understanding of how our bodies work and how we can make sure they carry on working as long as possible.

The fact is that data is more than just a currency which consumers consent to exchange for personalised services. Data can be used for just as many “good” purposes as “bad” ones, and in many cases, can be used to entirely change people’s lives and way of living.

Certainly, much remains to be done regarding personal data protection. The accountability procedures by organisations handling so much information can be improved. It’s crucial that users be given necessary assurances in terms of respecting personal identities when it comes to processing or keeping their information. It’s critical that companies are not disingenuous in the way that they request data i.e. be very clear as to what is being requested and why.

We shouldn’t think of big data as synonymous with illegality, because it isn’t. To change that perception, we ought to stop with the “should we, shouldn’t we” types of debate and instead ask more constructive questions, such as how to develop the technology to meet the demands of privacy challenges.

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