Originally written by Jer Thorp for the HBR Blog Network.
Every 14 minutes, somewhere in the world, an ad exec strides on stage with the same breathless declaration:
“Data is the new oil!”
It’s exciting stuff for marketing types, and it’s an easy equation: big data equals big oil, equals big profits. It must be a helpful metaphor to frame something that is not very well understood; I’ve heard it over and over and over again in the last two years.
The comparison, at the level it’s usually made, is vapid. Information is the ultimate renewable resource. Any kind of data reserve that exists has not been lying in wait beneath the surface; data are being created, in vast quantities, every day. Finding value from data is much more a process of cultivation than it is one of extraction or refinement.
Still, there are some ways in which the metaphor might be useful.
Perhaps the “data as oil” idea can foster some much-needed criticality. Our experience with oil has been fraught; fortunes made have been balanced with dwindling resources, bloody mercenary conflicts, and a terrifying climate crisis. If we are indeed making the first steps into economic terrain that will be as transformative (and possibly as risky) as that of the petroleum industry, foresight will be key. We have already seen “data spills” happen (when large amounts of personal data are inadvertently leaked). Will it be much longer until we see dangerous data drilling practices? Or until we start to see long term effects from “data pollution”?
One of the places where we’ll have to tread most carefully — another place where our data/oil model can be useful — is in the realm of personal data. A great deal of the profit that is being made right now in the data world is being made through the use of human-generated information. Our browsing habits, our conversations with friends, our movements and location — all of these things are being monetized. This is deeply human data, though very often it is not treated as such. Here, perhaps we can invoke a comparison to fossil fuel in a useful way: where oil is composed of the compressed bodies of long-dead micro-organisms, this personal data is made from the compressed fragments of our personal lives. It is a dense condensate of our human experience.
This re-framing of data into a human context is crucial. I believe there are three things we can do to make data more human, and in doing so generate much more than short-term business value:
First, people need to understand and experience data ownership. While everyone in our society is producing vast quantities of data, individuals rarely see or interact with any of it. When people are given tools to store, visualize, and explore their own data, they gain an understanding of the worth and utility of this information. Applied on a broad scale, this improved understanding of data could lead to better decisions by individuals — both in cases where there data is being misused and in cases where data can be applied to solve important problems like disaster response, cancer diagnosis or disease spread.
Second, we need to have a more open conversation about data and ethics. Of the dozens of start-ups who have approached me for advice on their personal data-centered ventures over the last year, not a single one has mentioned the rights of the people from whom the data is being extracted. This needs to change. I suspect there will be tremendous benefit for companies who position themselves as “data humane” and that ultimately this could be the standard practice for business as consumers become more data-savvy.
Finally, we need to change the way that we collectively think about data, so that it is not a new oil, but instead a new kind of resource entirely. For this to occur we need to foster a deep understanding of data in society. As it happens, humanity has a mechanism for this kind of broad cultural change: the arts. As we proceed towards profit and progress with data, let us encourage artists, novelists, performers and poets to take an active role in the conversation. In doing so we may avoid some of the mistakes that we made with the old oil.