One of the reasons that some of the biggest changes in countries happen without people’s knowledge is that they are embedded in incredibly boring things. Think about the impact that gerrymandering has had on the political outlook of the US, people didn’t pay attention because the concept of redistricting is incredibly boring. Similarly with bank deregulation in the 1980’s - it has had more impact on the world today than perhaps any other political move in history, but at the time it was largely ignored because the actual way it worked was incredibly dull for most people.
Data was the same for many years. The concept of statistical analysis was dull because it offered the public no kind of intrigue or interest in general. There would occasionally be a headline about a peculiarity that appeared because of it, a scientific study that shocked people, or a trend that people will have noticed in their day-to-day lives, but by-and-large, the concept of data was so boring that nobody outside of the data community really cared about it.
It has only really been in the last 5 years that this view of data has changed and this has been down to big data becoming something exciting. People now know that data is what allows them to find anything on Google, it powers robots that so many are scared of or excited for, and it is causing driverless cars to become more than just a distant fantasy.
As data has become prevalent in our society and is now the leading driver behind much of what we do, its use has become considerably more interesting. It is similar to the use of oil, as it became an essential part of how people lived and travelled, the issues surrounding its price and domination of natural resources became a central pillar in economic and even military circles. Many believe that oil was one of the driving forces behind the US led coalition invasion of Iraq and as far back as 2011 Donald Trump was quoted as saying ‘You heard me, I would take the oil’ in reference to the war. He even pins the decision to not taking the country’s oil during the war as a driving force behind the emergence of ISIS in the country.
We are seeing similar sentiments towards data, with it not only being the cause of international diplomatic issues, but also driving it. The 2016 US election was unquestionably the most data-driven in both practise and content, with it becoming one of the most contentious points in the most bitter American election in history. The issues surrounding the storage and transmission of data by Hillary Clinton became a central tenet of Donald Trump’s campaign and the theft of data from the Clinton campaign, which was subsequently leaked ahead of the election, has been an issue for the past 6 months. There is also now a question of how controversial data firms Cambridge Analytica and SCL Elections LTD influenced the US elections and the Brexit Referendum illegally through the use of targeted data combined with psychological manipulation. All of this also causes international tension with Russia, who are accused of masterminding much of this spreading of fake news and data theft. The potential illegal use of data and illegal campaign collusion during the Brexit campaign is also a hot topic for many in the media, with two stories by Carole Cadwalladr ‘Follow the data: does a legal document link Brexit campaigns to US billionaire?’ and ‘The great British Brexit robbery: how our democracy was hijacked’ receiving close to 200,000 shares across social media in 10 days.
It seems that data has gone from being a boring subject that nobody really cared about, to being the basis of some of the biggest stories in decades.
Similarly the impact that data theft and hacking attacks has had in the past 5 years has seen it become a front page news for many media companies. For instance, the WannaCry hack that has impacted hundreds of thousands of computers around the world, the hacking of Target customers, and Yahoo’s double security breach were all huge international stories. The Ashley Madison hack, which saw 37 million account details leaked online caused perhaps the largest media uproar in 2015 as the intrigue surrounding data theft, threats from hackers, and marital infidelity all came together to create a compelling narrative that the media extensively reported on.
However, it is not only in political and international diplomacy where data has become more interesting. We have seen the quantified self movement growing as more people begin to use their own data to improve their lives. Everything from the number of steps taken in a day by the general public, through the power outputs of amateur cyclists are now pored over by the same people creating the data. As this data has become easier to collect and increasingly easier to understand and present, people with no kind of qualifications can now access it, understand it, and make informed decisions based on its use. It may not have an impact on the wider world, but for individuals this use of data that they check every day is both exciting and incredibly important.
There is little doubt that data has become increasingly exciting, which has meant that it no longer sits beyond the comprehension of most people. It means that the good work being done with it is likely to get more attention, but at the same time puts a huge amount of scrutiny.