There was once a day, not too long ago, when records management and document storage professionals were the gate-keepers of data. When the information that we found important was largely confined to physical records and paper documents, archivists and bookkeepers were its handlers.

Now, in our 21st century state of modernity, data has grown in such volume and significance to the well-running of the world, that it has left the hands of those humble custodians and has instead become the domain of the globe’s most powerful companies. Tech giants like Alphabet (Google’s parent company), Amazon, Facebook and Apple covetously store more and more data, establishing near monopolies on the practice and amassing eye-watering wealth in the process.

These huge companies have built a future of wealth accumulation around this newly revalued, newly commodified resource. Tech’s biggest companies are now so large they have taken on the significance of nation states, and their wealth and influence continues to grow. On the surface, data and its accumulation does look a lot like the oil industry did as little as ten years ago.

Data is the new oil’, says the Economist in 2017

When the Economist published its article highlighting the similarities between how the industry that deals in data has shaped up to look like the oil industry, the author of that piece was quick to highlight the negatives of this comparison.

Just as there are criticisms of oil companies’ influence over politics, over the last couple of years we’ve been made aware of tech giants’ lobbying power. In 2019, the Guardian, a UK-based newspaper, published an article that suggested Facebook agents were using financial incentives to try and convince major politicians across the globe into preventing further data privacy legislation.

In another parallel with oil, the global community is being woken up to the dangers of mismanagement within this huge industry. Where with oil the worry is that mismanaging that commodity might result in spills over land and sea, with data the concern is that the leakage will directly impact our personal lives.

What data companies harvest, our personal information, can be spilled just like oil can and, though there will be fewer aquatic birds killed in a data leak, the effects could be similarly devastating to individuals.

There are certainly comparisons between big data and oil and most of these similarities stem from the fact that these two industries have positioned themselves so centrally within the structure of global capitalism that the world might not turn without them.

What does the new importance placed on data mean for me?

Positives of data

Despite the scaremongering and, perhaps well-founded scepticism around big data corporations ability to properly regulate themselves, there are undoubtedly going to be some beneficial practices to come out of the growth of the industry.

New technology, regarded by many as the most important tool in humanity’s arsenal in the battle to curb the worst effects of climate change, is advanced by data. Autonomous vehicles, self-driving cars, are an example of this.

Many tech professionals consider that AVs could help us reach a future that is less taxing on the environment and safer for human beings. Self-driving cars could be programmed to reduce traffic, will likely be electric and will undoubtedly reduce road accidents.

AVs are a great example of a tech solution to modernity’s problems. If they are to become commonplace, they will only have done so as a result of data, lots and lots of data. For a driverless car to work it needs the ability to collect and act on so many different data points that the human mind boggles simply thinking about it.

Proximity-based information, to other cars and unmoving objects; weather-related data, in order to inform braking distances and safe acceleration speeds; map-building information, for planning routes, are just a few categories of data that an AV must be able to collect and act on in real time.

Data will be the key to developing technologies such as this.

How can data help me?

The International Data Corporation (IDC) estimates that global revenue in data collection and analytics will grow by 12% in 2020, taking the figure to a staggering $203 billion dollars.

Facebook, Google and Apple will continue to make money, lots of it, through the accumulation of data. So, it is clearly there to be made which draws out the question ‘How can I get in on the act?’

CEO of Aspirent and co-author of ‘Monetizing your Data: A Guide to turning data into profit-driving strategies and solutions’, Andrew Wells, presents this as an answer.

For small business owners and managers, the value of data comes in “helping them make better decisions.” This might not be the easy answer that some readers were hoping for, but data’s value to the smaller business owner or private individual does not lie in selling their own information. The value of data comes in how it is used, as in the case of the driverless AV.

In the old era of analytics, the analytics were clustered around the question,” Wells says. “The question helped you describe what was going on in the business.

The focus of data analytics has shifted according to Wells. Where companies used to use data to inform them on what the problem is or what the next step is, they should now use data to model the decisions used to act on the answers to that question.

Data is still useful in diagnosing issues but its true value, for small business owners or even private individuals, is in informing on the best ways out of these issues, in deciding on the best course of action.