Democratizing Data Part 1: Our Collective Responsibility to Data Literacy – A Call to Arms

This is the first in a series of posts that is going to investigate Big Data democratization. First, we will look at the market forces in the Big Data industry. Second, we will examine the internal changes businesses must look toward in leveraging the opportunity to its hilt. Third, a review of the tech layer of this story, the pressure and opportunity of the open source especially. Fourth, we’ll look at the impact to and on the public, not just collectively, but on an individual level as well, and examine where you and where I might fit into the data awakening. Trust us, we’ll be fair. In all honestly, some may prefer the snooze button.

“But nobody wants ‘data’. What they want are the answers.”

What we’re gonna do here today is begin a conversation about the capital B and capital D: “Big Data.” Why? No, not because it is trendy, nor because it is the “next thing,” but because it is, at present (and will be into the future) quite simply the crude black gold which fuels the Information Age.

“We have a new resource here,” says Professor David Hand of Imperial College London. “But nobody wants ‘data’. What they want are the answers.”

So how do we find the answers when we can hold seemingly limitless and unwanted ‘data’?

“It’s the Wild West right now,” says Patrick Wolfe of UCL. “People who are clever and driven will twist and turn and use every tool to get sense out of these data sets, and that’s cool. But we’re flying a little bit blind at the moment.

Statisticians are scrambling to develop new methods to seize the opportunity of big data. Such new methods are essential but they will work by building on the old statistical lessons, not by ignoring them.” 

Yet, are we correct in the assumption the statisticians are the key holders of the knowledge? Or do we recall Brunelleschi wasn’t trained as an architect, yet a polymath of science and art, who solved one of the greatest architectural and engineering challenges of history? I contend the analysis problem presented from the overflow of data is a call to arms for a new kind of inquisitor – a digital renaissance person, to look through the math into the humanity – to ask the human questions to press knowledge.

We are All Data Scientists in This Future

Let’s begin here: what really powers this future Information Age? What is the most precious material? While we hear of electric cars, and the fear of AI from Tesla/Space X’s Elon Musk, there is a bigger question at play: what is intelligence and how do we separate that from the collection and computation of data?  

Futurist Ray Kurzweil offers in an interview with The Verge, “In my view, biological humans will not be outpaced by the AIs because they (we) will enhance themselves (ourselves) with AI.”  

OK, Ray, but what is being enhanced?

“Increasingly, the raw energy, storage and collection of data presents a new commodity.”

That answer I propose is the ability to scale curiosity. Curiosity is a curious thing, as it must begin (as all pursuits of knowledge) with the blend of humility and self-awareness of knowing that you do not know combined with a desire to fulfill the void of ignorance. Transferring the unknown to known, and sometimes going beyond known to mastered, is business for the brave. For example, moving from hearing a piece of music to identifying the work, and then learning to play the piece, you are moving from novice to intermediate to expert.

Without a drive of curiosity pushing questions to data, there is little conversion of data to information, and information to answers. 

Again, how do we as individuals, as workers, as citizens, businesses, governments, and organizations convert data storage into data power – i.e. information – and then to a result?  

Considering this question begins to reveal a potential future economic, cultural and even political boon. Increasingly, the raw energy, storage and collection of data presents a new commodity. For example, trivia games become moot if we both have Google on our smartphones. The answer is commoditized by the machine.

AI and Humanity’s Potentially Symbiotic Relationship 

The power, then, will shift to those who ask the best questions. The time of the inquisitor will begin. For example, knowing the limits of Google, and the machine, one could design a quiz where the questions are unanswerable by Google or the machine. Imagine a simple human question, impossible to Google: “What color is my shirt?”  

“These great minds are simply the first responders to this revolution, the Sons and Daughters of Liberty so to speak.”

That in mind, here’s the deal: Big Data is currently considered the domain for data scientists and engineers, as if it is this priesthood of information holy-folk that know what we cannot possibly understand or interact with (i.e. the Big Data “flow”). I’m here to say that they alone cannot unlock Big Data into maximum utility – though of course their role important. Alone, these great minds are simply the first responders to this revolution, the Sons and Daughters of Liberty so to speak. What gets interesting is not when demagogues throw tea in the harbor, but when the citizens join, when they begin to says no or, better, asks why and then yes to change.

Why am I barred from access or information? Do I not have rights? Taxation without representation! But hold, let’s relax a second, reduce emotions and examine the facts.

Reclaiming Data Rights for the People – Beginning with the Market

Here’s the take away: the Big Data market as it stands today is an odd duck. Let’s take a look at the market:

Credit: Wikibon

What immediately stands out here, and will be a driving this investigation into Big Data, is simply this: if Big Data is so smart and scaleable, why do we see over 40% of the revenue coming from services?

What we need is an increase of inquisitors, asking more questions of their data. This process needs to be just as accessible as it currently is for data scientists. It needs to be democratized for the average person (a business or individual). This is how you make Big Data scalable. This is how you make it smart. This series will get to the bottom of exploring why this is important, how to do it and the overall impact on our population and society at large. Further, what percentage of the inquisitors are humans v. machine, and how to they interact?

“What we need is an increase of inquisitors, asking more questions of their data.”

We can’t simply have science and engineering solve a problem this large. We need the humanities and communication arts involved to help us reach new heights, developments and, ultimately, make new discoveries. Why? Because how much information you get out of your data is in direct proportion to how well you question it, not how much or how little you have of it. Those calling for holding or owning fewer data points are missing the point entirely. They aren’t asking the right questions. 

Here, the humanities and communication arts are experts. They connect the dots between technology and humanity, and will create an era in which Big Data isn’t a privacy or security concern. Instead, with the right questions, it will become the natural resource we’ve all been waiting on. 

This is about turning raw data into Big Data golden nuggets, and then spreading the wealth. Are you ready?