Data is the new oil

Data is the new oil. Privacy is the new environment. Mental illness is the new cancer.

While at Havas, a colleague of mine in the data team procured some buttons that read, “Data is the new oil.” As geeks, we were convinced that bits would power the information economy as the black stuff powered the industrial economy.

A couple of years later in 2011, the World Economic Forum made the button’s playful statement official, declaring data an economic asset, in the same class as gold and, yes, oil.

Businesses have awoken to the value of this asset, with only the most old-fashioned of companies dismissing its potential. Indeed, the recent union of two ad titans – Publicis and Omnicom – was rationalized to investors on the need to compete with Google and Facebook in the data space. It would seem that even the data-averse ‘Mad Men’ have recognized the need to embrace ‘the new oil’.

The rush to acquire and exploit this asset has raised some important and serious questions about privacy. From Google and Facebook to the NSA and Wikileaks, privacy has rarely surrendered its place in front-page news. Indeed, Google has gone so far as to hack its competitor’s browsers in order to harvest user data. Even DNA databases, as reported recently by the New York Times, are not watertight when it comes to privacy and security.

Just as the world’s appetite for oil has had devastating effects on our environment, the new appetite for data shows its own harmful signs.

The model will get it wrong…

Self-learning algorithms leverage vast amounts of data to deliver wonderful services, helping us to find information (Google), and recommend to us content (Netflix) and products (Amazon) that others have liked.

But if you’ve ever had a poor search result or recommendation, you well understand that these models can get it wrong.

This doesn’t have grave consequences when you’re trying to figure out what show to watch next. But when government appropriates this data and is opaque in its uses – as in the NSA’s PRISM programme – we have cause for concern.

The government has its own models and its own algorithms that it deploys in a variety of instances, most controversially in the name of national security. But what happens when these algorithms get it wrong? What happens when someone is detained secretly and unjustly on account of poor data and analysis?

We might rationalize this as collateral damage, or a small sacrifice for security and the greater good. Indeed, much proponent commentary rests on the dictum that “if you’re not doing anything wrong, you have nothing to worry about.”

…but new technology will ‘fix’ it.

This is a slippery slope. If we’re willing to comply with this dictum, are we not then willing to submit to other tracking measures that could be rationalized as improving the quality of analytical models? To defend against the vulnerability of skyscrapers, for example, would we be willing to accept surveillance drones flying high and peering into 40th storey condo windows? This data would help improve crime-fighting models. Or maybe it wouldn’t.

When oil and gas began powering cars, society saw exhaust pipes belch black smoke. We must have thought that this wasn’t great, but it was a ‘small sacrifice’ to make for the convenience of automobile travel. Decades later, its effects are being felt in a changing climate. What will become of privacy?

In addition to society’s over-reliance on hydrocarbons, the other major ‘collateral damage’ of the industrial economy is cancer. Of the 30 countries with the highest rates of cancer, 80 per cent of them are members of the OECD, a global group of industrialized economies. Indeed, recent scientific evidence has shown a link between air pollution and lung cancer. As a rapidly industrializing, hyper-polluting country with worsening air quality, this does not bode well for China. Cancer is already the number one killer in Beijing, one of the world’s most polluted cities.

Photo by  Alex Gindin  /  Unsplash

Industrial practices, automobile activity, a heavy reliance on manufacturing – as well as diet and smoking habits – have taken a toll on our collective physical strength. This isn’t to say that advances brought about through industrialization haven’t benefited humanity – on balance, industrialized country citizens live much longer and better than their industrializing cousins. But every gain has its cost.

Mental illness is the new cancer

For the data economy, that cost - cancer’s equivalent - is mental illness.

The data or information economy relies first and foremost on intellectual capital in order to properly function. These economies are service heavy, which means that economic activity is geographically skewed to where the most people live and work – cities.

The data economy rests on an infrastructure of – what else – data. This is powered by the proliferation of both consumer electronics (most notably, mobile computing) and cheap sensors that capture information on anything from air quality to concrete and steel stress. McKinsey estimates that $600B of value can be created and captured from the use of consumer location data alone – roughly 1% of the entire global economy. And that’s just scratching the surface.

This economic model relies on the continued, evolving creation of data on the one side and ever more sophisticated, capture, analysis and synthesis on the other. Based on Gartner’s assertion that information technology budgets will increasingly favour marketing departments, it’s clear that business will focus on managing and making sense of the vast quantities of data generated from consumer activity.

Relying on these data streams means that the economic incentives are stacked in favour of increased consumer technology and device usage. But recent scientific findings are beginning to reveal the potential harm this behaviour inflicts on the brain.

In one study from Michigan State University, researchers found a relationship between how much an individual simultaneously consumed multiple media sources (like TV and tablet, for example) and how anxious and depressed they felt. The study’s authors caution against drawing causal conclusions from this evidence: does multimedia usage cause anxiety and depression, or are anxious and depressed people prone to using more multimedia? But the explosive rise of “second-screening” suggests it may not matter – either more people are depressed and anxious, or they will become so.

In any event, if people are Facebook-ing on their second screen, we already know the answer. In another recent study, researchers from Michigan University and Leuven University found that the more a person used Facebook, the more miserable they were.

As one of the biggest generators of consumer data, Facebook is a key player in the data economy. With over a billion users around the world, its scale and reach is huge. Advertisers constantly use TV and other media to drive consumers to their Facebook pages (for contests, for example), which means a continued growth of time spent on Facebook. Indeed, the average American spends nearly seven hours each month on Facebook. In 2008, five per cent of Americans visited social media sites multiple times each day. By 2012, that figure had risen to 22 per cent. Facebook leads the social media pack by a country mile.

This means that more and more people will be spending more time on Facebook. This is great for Facebook’s shareholders, but not so great for the mental health of its users.

For it’s more than just a bunch of anxious and depressed kids sulking on Facebook. The impacts of this – and the broader data economy – are potentially enormous.

To start, mental illness is already on the rise. In the UK, a look at Incapacity Benefit data shows that the number one reason behind claims is mental illness (as opposed to physical incapacitation).

In Canada, instances and indicators of mental illness are also rising rapidly. The number of Canadians reporting worsened mental health has risen by almost 25% versus 5 years ago, according to Statistics Canada’s biannual survey of health perceptions. In addition, 12% more Canadians report having mood disorders and almost 10% feel their life is more stressful.

Of course, the world has recently gone through an economic recession, and the survey overlaps with that timeframe. However, the most recent survey reports 2011/2012 perceptions – at which point economic growth had resumed – and the growth rates of each of the above had continued to accelerate.

Going forward, the situation is even grimmer. In the US, rates of Alzheimer’s disease are estimated to triple by 2050. For Alzheimer’s, much of this is the result of an aging society, and there are genetic factors involved, too. But, according to the Mayo Clinic, genes account for only around five per cent of the causes of Alzheimer’s, with the remaining a mix of environmental and lifestyle factors. Prominent among these is social isolation, which the data economy propagates. In the absence of human social contact, the brain loses some of its critical ability to function, which can accelerate the onset of Alzheimer’s.

And it isn’t just device and platform usage that can be damaging to mental health, and lead to more devastating mental illnesses like Alzheimer’s. There’s also evidence that suggests that surveillance – of the kind engaged in by the NSA, for example – impairs mental health by heightening stress, fatigue and anxiety, and disintegrating social cohesion.

The economic cost of mental illness is substantial, and will be particularly unforgiving for service-based, information economies. In Britain, mental illness is estimated to cost society £77B. According to the American Alzheimer’s Association, the cost of caring for those patients affected by the disease will eclipse $1T by 2050.

One of the strongest signs that this is a serious threat to society is the investment behind both public and private initiatives to better understand and strengthen the brain. Take the Obama administration’s recent BRAIN initiative. Investing $100M in 2014, the project seeks to jumpstart a collective initiative to map the 100 billions neurons firing and connecting in the brain, thus powering our collective understanding of this most complex organism.

The private sector is also taking note. InterAxon, a maker of consumer-grade electroencephalograms (EEGs) – brain wave measurement devices – recently raised $7M in funding from Omers Ventures. Lumos Labs, owner of Lumosity, a maker of popular brain games has raised almost $70M in venture funding. The “digital brain health” market is forecast to grow to $6.2B in 2020, from around $1B in 2012, according to SharpBrains, a research firm.

The positive attention can’t come soon enough. The social costs of the multimedia, social networking activity that powers the data economy will be compounded by the rapid urbanization that characterizes its geography. A study into how the brain interacts with the urban environment provides a useful illustration of its challenges but also clues to how it might be better managed.

Researchers in Edinburgh equipped participants with EEGs connected to laptops in backpacks. Participants were instructed to take a one-and-a-half mile walk. The first half-mile was through a busy historic, pedestrianized shopping district with light vehicle traffic. The second was through a leafy park, and the last half-mile took participants through a busy commercial area with lots of automobile traffic.

Data from participants’ brain waves were constantly streamed to the database in the laptop, and revealed evidence for what many of us suspect is obvious: that busy commercial districts of a city drive greater levels of frustration and overstimulation, particularly in those heavy auto traffic areas. This in turn leads to brain fatigue, reducing our ability to concentrate and perform intellectually challenging tasks – that is, perform critical functions of the data economy.

If these findings are consistent and obvious in Edinburgh – a city of around 500,000 people – imagine how participants’ brains would have reacted to Manhattan, Mumbai, Sao Paulo, or Shanghai? In 2007, the typical Manhattan resident saw an average of 5000 ads each day the year the first iPhone came to market. Talk about overstimulation!

The Edinburgh study, however, gives us hints into how to help mitigate the damaging effects of the data economy (and clean up some of the harmful results of the industrial economy): Increase public green space.

Participants consistently showed heightened levels of meditative brain waves when they walked through the park. Natural settings have a mentally restorative effect on the brain. In essence, they give our brain a rest from the overstimulation of the busy city, and are critical to improving cognitive performance.

Using these types of technologies to understand how to design spaces – public and private – provides a promising path forward for policy and decision-makers.

As with cancer, preventative measures and education on mental illness are essential for both mental and economic health.