Big Data – Amazing, Open data – Awesome, Personal data – Evil?

We live in a Big Data world. By combining data from different unrelated sources we are able to generate new insights and create new economic and social value in healthcare, disaster relief, fraud prevention, connected cars, and many more sectors. The same is true for Open Government Data – by releasing all sorts of public data (crime statistics, energy consumption, business registrations, construction permits, location data and more) and allowing it to be re-used for secondary purposes we can unleash economic and social value. In both these cases the underlying assumption is that by allowing data to flow and combine with other data, we are able to create new value.

You take the data that’s already there, let entrepreneurs take it and turn it into awesomeness.”

— Todd Park, US Chief Technology Officer on Open Data


Yet the public debate around personal data is increasingly focused on the negatives – security breaches, misuses and privacy abuses – and there is a lot to focus on – whether it’s Google or Microsoft’s changes to its privacy policy, or Sony’s security breach, or Verizon, MasterCard or O2 selling data about you. Protecting individuals is an important objective but we need to be very careful. Increasingly the approach to protection seems to be to lock data down, prevent it being collected and restrict its use. But is that good for individuals and the collective good?


Why is there such a different approach to personal data on the one hand and open/big data on the other hand? Are they really that different? Lots of open data started out as personal data held by government – births, deaths, marriages, social security, health data. Big Data is about generating insights and identifying patterns at an aggregated level but personal data is the raw materials for much of this analysis. Where does personal data end and big or open public data start? In many ways they are all data about people just at different levels of abstraction, aggregation and use.


In a hyperconnected world trying to control collection of the data itself is futile and even counterproductive. Data itself isn’t bad or good but it can be used or abused. So how do we start to think about data differently? How can we all benefit (and avoid being harmed) from the explosion of personal data we generate everyday? Or as #WeTheData and their Vibrant Data Project frame it: how do we get “data that works for us and not against us”.


I have three suggestions to help make the transition required to ensure we can all take advantage of the data created about us:


  1. From ownership to rights – Data doesn’t belong to anyone – it is created by multiple parties and multiple parties have certain rights to it. We need to stop thinking about it in terms of exclusive ownership (“It’s my data”) and towards an approach that focuses on what can be done with data, by whom, under what circumstances – in other words a contextual approach. And as discussed above we need to focus less on labelling the type of data and focus on its usage – both good and bad. Lastly we need to shift the way we think about data protection from being about locking down the flow of data to encouraging the trusted flow of data.


  1. From fear to value – The public debate has focussed on the many missteps companies have taken in using data. Whilst this is important it also leads people to think that data is only used against them. We need to start making the case for how data can be used to create value for all including individuals. If only the Wall Street Journal spent as much time reporting about all the different ways value is being created for individuals, society, business and government instead of its “What they know” series, which only served to further heighten fears, we might have a very different public debate. Where are the articles about how trusted flow of personal data is being used to dramatically reduce mortality rates for HIV patients, or prevent disease outbreak, or reduce fraud? We need to understand all the possible ways that data can create value and therefore have a better understanding of the trade-offs involved in restricting data flow. A renewed focus on maximising value and minimising harm would remove some of the fears and emotive responses around the use of data.


  1. From consent to choice – The traditional approach of notice and consent makes liars of us all. Every time we click on the bottom of a 77 page privacy policy to say “I have read and understood….” we are forced to lie in order to get the service we want. It’s a legal liability approach that treats the individual as a passive data subject. And it’s got to stop. Individuals need real effective choice if they are to trust how data about them is being used. This means we need to understand what is being presented to us and need to understand the implications of our choices. And this all has to happen in a simple way in the matter of seconds or else people won’t engage.


This sounds like a pretty daunting task. But there are examples of companies making this shift. In May this year (as a result of an EU directive), website owners operating in any EU country were required to obtain consent from European users before installing cookies. Most websites went for the tried, tested and failed approach – a pop-up saying “we use cookies, if you have a problem click here”–which was duly ignored. But at least one company used it as an opportunity to change the way they engage with individuals (see picture below). BT created a simple sliding scale offering users three options on a protection/value trade-off scale; “Strictly necessary and performance”, “Functional” and “Targeting”. This allows each person to select a fair value exchange for them; they decide how much data they want to share, based on what they would get in return. This is a clear simple way of ensuring data works for each of us and not against us.



We all have a responsibility to help in the transition towards safer and better use of data. Once people, companies and governments change the way they think about and engage with data we can start to realise the enormous potential that this brave new data world contains.


Carl Kalapesi is a guest blogger on – He is currently on secondment from The Boston Consulting Group to the World Economic Forum to manage their Rethinking Personal Data project ( The views in this blog are his own and do not necessarily represent the views of either BCG or the World Economic Forum or any of the partners of the World Economic Forum. You can follow him on Twitter @carlkalapesi or connect with him via LinkedIn or Facebook.

Add a Comment