Big data is in danger of becoming demonised

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Harry van Dorenmalen, Chairman, IBM Europe

Harry van Dorenmalen, Chairman, IBM Europe

The Internet is making big data and the tools needed to make sense of it, widely available around the world. But despite the valuable knowledge it helps generate, data is in danger of becoming demonised, writes Harry van Dorenmalen.

Harry van Dorenmalen is the Chairman of IBM Europe

Data is the natural resource of the 21st century. It is creating fundamental changes for the better in the global economic and societal landscape. Improved health care, enhanced effective water and energy management, more accurate weather prediction, more efficient supply chains and improved traffic flows are just some of the benefits of ‘big data’.

This data-driven innovation is happening for three reasons. First, the amount of data that we produce is staggering: every two days we are creating the equivalent of all the data generated through human history up to 2003. Second, amazing advances in information technology have given us powerful analytics tools that enable us to mine data to extract valuable knowledge, understanding and insight.  Third, the Internet is making both big data, and the tools to make sense of it, widely available around the world.

Despite all of this, data is in danger of becoming demonised. While it is critical that governments address the issue of lawful access to data, we must not allow this debate to preclude the tremendous benefits of data.

There is much rhetoric in play that misrepresents the full story about data. The truth is that to realize the promise of big data does not require sacrificing personal privacy.  It is not an “either / or” choice. There is a need to get this message out, to educate people about the benefits of big data and to demonstrate that we can leverage this new natural resource while also protecting privacy.

The free flow of data is also under threat. Some are calling for walls to be built around the Internet at a regional level, to block cross border data flows and to force the localization of data in certain regions. There are also demands for the suspension of international data transfer mechanisms that are essential for global commerce, such as Safe Harbour. Adoption of such measures would isolate entire countries and regions from the global digital economy and create a self-imposed economic handicap.

Ensuring trust in the digital world is essential, and business and government both have important roles to play. But let’s be clear: government access to data for intelligence purposes and the use of data by companies for commercial use are two separate issues and to treat them similarly will snatch away exciting opportunities for progress.

Protectionism and restrictions on commercial use of data will not resolve the concerns that have been raised. Rather, such measures will seriously hamper innovation, rendering local economies less competitive, discouraging investment and job creation, reducing consumer choice, blocking access to services while increasing costs.

European Commission Vice-President Kroes recently said: “’No’ to data protectionism; ‘Yes’ to data protection.” The upcoming EU-US Summit on March 26  – the first visit of President Obama to Brussels – is an excellent opportunity to endorse this principle at the highest levels.

Data flows and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) will be high on the agenda at the Summit. TTIP offers a unique opportunity to set the example as a 21st Century trade agreement that supports cross border data flow provisions and the further development of the Digital Economy .This occasion, and discussions in the months ahead, will be crucial for the future of data-driven innovation. As a company active in the EU since 1914, IBM is committed to working with Europe to find a solution that enables data protection and generates trust while at the same time stimulates innovation, job creation and an open internet.

We have at our disposal both a vast new natural resource and the means to mine it for value that makes our society more flexible, innovative, democratic and sustainable. We must not miss this opportunity.

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