#MakeItCount Conference (and why hashtags matter)

Despite some hashtag-based confusion (#makeitcount is the official hashtag of a very popular piece of wearable tech), last Monday’s conference on big/open data arranged by SciDev.Net provided some interesting food for thought. The #makeitcount conference attempted to bring together a diverse group of people interested in big and/or open data to discuss issues of common concern. In some respects, the group was perhaps a little too diverse, meaning that conversations ranged from the latest developments in evidence-based policymaking in the UK to the difficulties of collecting data from people who don’t even have access to a basic phone or a consistent electricity supply, let alone an internet connection or a social media profile. Reassuringly, however, there is some overlap and challenges that are common to open data enthusiasts in the UK and around the world. Here’s a brief look at just some of them:

  • Privacy and security: Whether we’re in a post-Snowden, post-PRISM or post-Wikileaks age barely seems to matter, but data privacy and security is top of almost any data conference agenda right now. While technology has facilitated bringing people together, campaigning, data collection and analysis and a whole host of other developments, data privacy and security remain huge challenges. Just as protesters may use mobile phones and social media to organise marches, so too can security and police forces use the very same technology to track, intercept and possibly crush dissident or protest movements. In other areas of life, too, data privacy is a big issue. In the UK, for example, it was recently revealed that years’ worth of medical data has been provided to private insurance companies. When the trust between data collector (usually an organisation) and data provider (often an individual) breaks down, it becomes very difficult to re-establish that bond.
  • Data literacy: Many people fundamentally misunderstand data and how to read it. The dubious use of statistics by policymakers and press – to give but two examples – makes it difficult for ordinary citizens to have a real understanding of the issues. Not only does this impact upon how people use and view data and meaning derived from it, it also complicates the issue of data consent. If citizens truly understood what their data meant and how it was being used, they might not be so willing to provide it in the first place.
  • Feedback burn: As citizens we provide companies, governments, employers and others with data about ourselves. Spending patterns, journey histories, location data etc. While much of it is provided automatically and sometimes without our informed consent, there are also occasions when we consciously provide data, such as when we report a broken street light to our local council or fill out a customer satisfaction survey. If we never hear back and our problems and concerns are never addressed, it becomes progressively less likely that we will take the time in future to do these things.

Open and big data is a two-way process. To work, the participants in any ‘data exchange’ need to trust one another and talk via something more meaningful than a simple terms and conditions form. And if we are to make the most of this ‘data revolution’, then education and understanding of both the benefits and the risks will be key.