EU official: Big data ‘here forever and in all sectors’

Robert Madelin

Robert Madelin [Latvian Presidency of the Council of the European Union]

The data revolution is so pervasive that it’s hard to predict which sectors of the economy are going to be hit first, said Robert Madelin in an interview with EURACTIV. The senior EU official warned lawmakers against being too restrictive on privacy protection, saying it was “utopian” to believe that citizens should always be “enabled to hide”.

When the European Commission announced a reshuffle of portfolios among its senior-level staff in June this year, there was one appointment which came as a surprise to most observers.

Robert Madelin, a senior official who was until then in charge of DG Connect, the Commission department overseeing telecoms and digital affairs, was appointed as senior adviser for innovation at the European Political Strategy Centre (EPSC), an internal think tank advising the Commission President.

The decision may have surprised Madelin himself, who says his personal preference would have been to stay on for another term at DG Connect. But he says he was also equally ready to do other things.

“The civil service is like the military, in that you pack up and go somewhere else when the time comes. So I don’t have any difficulty with that,” he told EURACTIV.

Big data revolution

Madelin’s deep understanding of digital matters – and how the data revolution is expected to transform all sectors of the economy – was probably one of the reasons behind his appointment to a new role as policy advisor.

“I think data and the free flow of data, which is the goal of the Digital Single Market, is a big new vision,” he told EURACTIV.

“Big data is going to come everywhere,” he said, adding it was hard to predict which sectors will grow fastest – whether in energy, health or other industrial sectors. “We are at a time of such pervasive disruption and accelerated change thanks to digital, that anything might be the next big winner.”

“But I don’t think that anyone would dispute that the notion of data and data analytics taken together is here for ever and in all sectors,” he said.

On 1 September, Madelin will move closer to the 13th floor of the Berlaymont, the Commission’s flagship building in Brussels, where the office of Jean-Claude Juncker is located. And although he will deal with broader policy issues than at DG Connect, digital matters will remain at the centre of his new advisor role, focussing on innovation.

Most data ‘not personal’

Asked whether privacy issues risked hindering the digital economy, he said he did not believe so.

“Everyone would agree that getting data right is crucial for the digital age,” he said, adding the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) will be part of that. He admitted nonetheless that digital privacy was a serious concern for society at large. “At the moment we are living through a phase of transition, where part of the moral panic is related to the profound disruption of the data age.”

But to him, privacy issues may have been overstated. Data protection rules only apply in case of personal information but the vast majority of the data generated in the digital age is of a completely different nature, he said.

“The biggest data at the moment is from things like the Pluto fly-by and the Large Hadron Collider,” which are not personal, he said. “So we shouldn’t assume that all the instances of big data that matter will be B2C and therefore have a personal data component.”

“We probably underestimate today the proportion of data available in a decades time that will not be personal data; that will either be anonymised or be a-personal,” he continued, citing as examples the data generated by sensors on a road bridge or from the next generation of Eiffel towers.

And when the data does become personal, Madelin said it will fall under the General Data Protection Regulation, which is currently being negotiated by the EU institutions. And this, he said, means that individuals will have to give their consent – “effectively, explicitly, case-by-case”.

In any case, he expects that the technology itself will come to the rescue and “deal with half of the problem.” People, he said, will increasingly be able to control their personal data “brick by brick”, in accordance with their preferences, allowing the legal principle of consent “to be fulfilled at ever lower cost and with ever greater control by the individual”.

Health data

But he strongly rejected suggestions that personal data should be treated differently, for example when dealing with sensitive information such as people’s health records.

“We should absolutely not go sectoral, but implement horizontal, principle-based regulation at the highest possible level,” Madelin contended, saying sector-agnostic rules are “far easier for innovation to accommodate than very specific stuff.”

He even turned the question around, wondering whether it was ethical to refuse sharing personal data in areas such as medical research. Taking the genome as an extreme example, he asked: “If big data plus my genome plus everybody else’s genome can save lives, do I have the right to say ‘no I don’t want to share my genome with society’?”

He also dismissed calls for individuals to be able to conceal sensitive information about their health. A former cancer patient, for instance, should not have to hide his or her health records when applying for a job or for an insurance scheme.

According to Madelin, this is “a social problem that cannot be fixed by putting more and more effort into hiding”. For example, limits could be placed on insurance premium variation, he said. Or social provisions could be increased to help cover the extra insurance cost that the market will not provide for certain individuals.

“Chasing the idea that privacy will save you and then society will not have to step in is very short-termist. It’s utopian. Because the real problem of society is not enabling citizens to hide, it is giving citizens solidarity.”

New role

Turning to his new role, Madelin said his main task will be to produce a report on innovation by summer 2016. The assignment is quite broad and spans policy, regulatory and financing changes that could be made at EU level to make Europe a global pro-innovation actor.

Many initiatives have already been taken by previous Commissions on innovation – including the Innovation Union, the European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT), and the Horizon 2020 programme. So the first task will be to map the activities already happening, spot potential gaps, and build bridges between different areas of work, Madelin said. “And the third question is, are there things we are doing that are already connected up, but we are not doing them fast enough, or not doing enough of them? — So a scale question.”

Like most EPSC reports, the contents of the paper won’t be made available to the public, however, and therefore not subject to public scrutiny. Still, some of the ideas contained in the report might trickle down in the form of new policy initiatives.

Madelin also played down expectations about innovation policy, saying the innovation process itself is difficult to predict and prone to the cycles of success and failure. “My test would be to look for things that are politically feasible and impactful at EU level,” he said.

Above all, he doesn’t fool himself into believing he has suddenly become an innovation guru. “I haven’t been appointed to this job because I am a big expert on innovation – I’m not – I think I have been appointed to this job to be creative,” which in his view means producing “good ideas”.

>> Read the full interview here

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