Friday, 6 June 2014

Have we got a map?

Today's breakfast presentation in Auckland by the New Zealand Data Futures Forum left me - baffled wouldn't be right, and awestruck is too much - let's say dazed. The Forum has a fine objective - "New Zealand is a world leader in the trusted use of shared data to deliver a prosperous inclusive society" - but at the risk of sounding like Sir Marcus Browning MP, even after this presentation and a previous one (described here), I still don't know what this vision will look like and don't know how or whether we'll get there.

We've got four big megatrends going on - social apps, the cloud, mobility, big data - and where they all fetch up, and what effect they will have on the economy, culture and society by the end of the process is anyone's guess. I'm perfectly prepared to believe that harnessing the information that's in the increasingly humongous amount of data we create could lead to transformational advances in health, education, productivity, and our general understanding of the world.  Beyond that, for me it's a blur. As John Whitehead, the chair of the Forum, said in his wrap-up remarks, the current data revolution may be similar in scale and scope to the Industrial Revolution, and nobody knew at the time where that was heading, either.

Everyone would like New Zealand to be one of the more effective innovators in this new increasingly data based world, and arguably we're starting with some comparative advantages. We have, for example, a high level of trust in our institutions, which means we have a lower starting point of angst over issues such as surveillance and privacy. On the other hand I wasn't encouraged by someone observing that New Zealand is the only country in the Asia/Pacific accredited by the European Union with having the same data protections as it does. It was meant to be a compliment about our current arrangements, but it left me somewhat worried. My impression is that the EU is no model for a data driven future, and already inhibits commercial data use that would be regarded as commonplace and unexceptionable in many other places.

But frankly nobody really knows what's the infrastructure you'll need to get off to a good start (though a single internet pipe to the rest of the world probably isn't exactly what you'd want), and that includes the policy and regulatory infrastructure, if indeed they are going to be relevant at all.  As Bill English, one of the speakers, mentioned, and commenters from the floor echoed, it's likely that events are likely to unfold  faster and more widely than any privacy commissars can keep up with, or as he put it (and I think this is pretty much a literal quote), "a slow moving, rule driven, control freak government structure" can't stay on top of the speed of events in the world of big data. Maybe the best policy setting is to get out of the way, for the most part, with perhaps some flexible principles-based (as opposed to rules-based) framework as backstop to privacy or other concerns.

The Forum has been thinking about what those principles might be - in its second discussion document it's come up with value, inclusion, trust and control - and if you've got your own ideas about innovative data-driven innovations, or about anything in the general area of big data, data use, and privacy, then head over to the Forum's website and put in your view. They're commendably open to input of all kinds - they've got a 'have your say' thingie - but it's only open for another ten days or so, so it's speak now, or forever hold your peace.

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