Let´s squeze the data for insights

Viktor Mayer-Schönberger, Professor at the Oxford University and Keynote Speaker at the Primetime for Big Data conference in Prague, shares his view on the current challenges and opportunities in the world full of (unused) data.

On Christmas day 2019, doctors in a Chinese hospital sent a blood sample of a patient suffering from a new respiratory illness to a lab for genetic sequencing.

Sekvenování Dna By January 10, about two weeks later researchers around the world had completed the full sequencing of the new virus and published their dataset. It started a global race. Only 72 hours later, on January 13, researchers at Moderna, a US biotech startup, had used the virus data to build a vaccine. It was a world record. Never before in human history have medical researchers developed a vaccine that quickly. Of course, it needed to be tested – and has been going through phases one and two, and is now in phase three, the big final phase.

This feat was possible not primarily because of medical advances, but because of digital ones. We can now collect more data about reality in digital form faster and cheaper than ever before. And we have the data analytics and machine learning tools to uncover hidden patterns in the data that signify novel and valuable insights. But the most important ingredient isn’t data or technology, it is mindset: the need to understand that utilizing data means creating value, and to appreciate that reusing data for different purposes yield more value each time we do it.

It sounds obvious and trivial, but in fact it isn’t. Studies suggest that in Europe up to 85 percent of all digital data that is being collected is never used – not even once! In other words: we collect seven times more data than we use it. And the little data we use, we don’t squeeze very much for insights. We mostly put it aside after a single use. How terribly inefficient! How utterly wasteful! How completely unsustainable! How so very much like your, mine, our economy in 2020!

We must do better than that. And we can. The example of the vaccine is telling. If we share our collected data, and focus on utilizing it, we can gain crucially important insights and much faster than before. The key to unlock that value is mindset. On the one hand, that’s good – because mindset does not require huge financial investments. On the other hand, that’s challenging – because changing how we think, changing how we approach data – as a means of insight rather than a bearer of cost – is the hardest part. It requires cognitive flexibility, a desire to experiment. A willingness to try, and at times to fail. To risk, and to explore without knowing exactly what we will find.

Perhaps we can use the current pandemic to instill this mindset in us, and thus to translate the current global challenge into an informational opportunity. I hope we do.

Professor Viktor Mayer-Schönberger. Professor of Internet Governance and Regulation, Oxford University

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