Data is becoming increasingly important to our societies. We live in an age of data abundance and, without many of us realising, data has become a new type of infrastructure and a critical one at that. The age of data abundance has led to brilliant new services and can help our societies tackle challenges such as climate change and population growth, but it also creates risks to privacy and concentrations of power.

Societies need to be able to debate what this age of data abundance means for them. People need to make decisions about the relationship between individuals, communities, societies and data. We need to pick a future vision for our relationship with data and then make steps towards it. Many governments and societies are having this debate now.

In my job I put forward the Open Data Institute’s position on those decisions while also trying to encourage a more public debate. I want a debate because I, and the lovely people I work with, want the decision to be made by societies around the world.

To make this debate as broad and informed as possible, I need what I say to be understandable by as many people as possible. I try to use plain language and frequently test new language and concepts to see if they are understandable. Sometimes I test things through tweets or blogs, like this one, at other times by talking with people from differing backgrounds and perspectives.

By testing, listening and learning I have made some of the language more accessible but I’ve also realised that something was more important than I first thought: politics. Both my politics and that of others.

Let me try and explain.

Choices about data

Sometimes people say they want to help people make better choices about data. I did that a few times in this blog about an open future for data.

I was talking about the ideas in that blog with a left-wing British politican who stopped me mid-sentence and asked if I was a Blairite nowadays. No, I replied. “Then why are you using the language of Blair’s choice agenda?”, they asked.

image copyright the BBC. Taken from a blog stating that the comedy show Yes (Prime) Minister, was the most cunning political propaganda ever conceived

Further testing of the language caused another person to recoil and suggest that if I kept talking about choices I might be accused of being a secret Thatcherite pushing the theory of public choice. Hmm….

I’d used the word ‘choice’ because I thought it was plain language but it was clear that the decision risked putting in place a political barrier for some of the other ideas in the blog. This is a problem.

Data is political

When thinking about and debating technology and data with other technologists it can be easy to fall into a trap of thinking that every decision can be based on empirical evidence, that there is a single right answer and that we can make that right answer a reality by designing and building the right technology. This is nonsense.

In our debates about data we need to decide issues of access, ownership, regulation and the relationship between citizens and the state. These are political decisions.

Whilst we might have individual opinions about data we need a state and legal system to help put decisions into practice. States will allow technologists to innovate and try things out but there comes a time when existing legislation will be more strongly applied or new legislation will be put in place as society’s needs change. This happened and continues to happen with road traffic, it will happen with data.

By broadening the debate we are helping that decision to be made democratically. Democracy might have seemed under strain in some countries in 2016 but as Churchill said:

Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time

To put it more simply politics and democracy is important and data, as with most things, is political.

Words already carry political meaning

The “white heat of technology” makes me think of Harold Wilson and the 1960s UK Labour party. Because of my political history I have positive feelings about the phrase despite the speech being followed by the scrapping of several high-profile technology projects. Image copyright PA.

Words are a tool political people use to reach our hearts. Sometimes those words are a catchy slogan. At other times it’s a frame: a guiding metaphor or image for a political argument.

Political slogans and language are designed to appeal to a group of people, build on existing beliefs and make them choose a particular path.

Some words carry a particular meaning in the present because they have been used in a political context in the past. Marx said it more poetically:

The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.

The word “choice” resonated amongst some people involved in British politics that I spoke to because of those traditions and their political history. It will have bought back nightmares for some and heavenly dreams for others.

Data is not about left or right wing politics

In economic terms each of these cakes is rivalrous: only one person can eat them. Cake is not like data, multiple people can use data at the same time. Picture of cake by Hani AlYousif, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Our societies and political systems are used to making political decisions about many types of resources, for example oil or water, but data has different qualities to the physical resources that are embedded in our political systems, debates and legislation.

To give two regularly used examples: data is non-rivalrous, unlike a piece of cake many people can use data at the same time, and data benefits from network effects, it becomes more valuable as more people use and maintain it.

These differences are one of the reasons the team at the Open Data Institute talk about data as analogous to roads:

Data is infrastructure. Just like roads. Roads help us navigate to a location. Data helps us make a decision.

The “data is roads” analogy breaks people out of the traditional mindset. It helps open their minds to thinking differently.

I think that, as with the web, these different qualities mean that a closed-open axis is a more useful way of thinking than the traditional left and right-wing political axis.

But it will be harder to get people to think about the decisions along that closed-open axis if our words and ideas cause them to think of old left and right wing political battles.

Take back control of data

Data has many other different qualities to other resources. One that is becoming increasingly evident and important is that data is sometimes about identifiable people, sometimes it isn’t and sometimes it’s a bit complicated.

Much of the current debate about data is dominated by personal data: the stuff which is about identifiable people. Many people believe that there is an asymmetry of power and privacy as data about us is controlled by governments and corporations.

Tav Kotka, the Estonian Chief Information Officer, at MyData 2016 in Helsinki. Watch the full video.

Tav Kotka, the Chief Information Officer of Estonia, recently gave a talk in which he broached the idea of adding a fifth freedom to the EU’s existing four freedoms for free movement of goods, workers, services and capital. The talk was mostly about personal data and the concept of personal data stores that could allow individuals to control how data about them is used.

Whilst I agree that more personal control over personal data is important the talk bought up memories of Margaret Thatcher and my teenage political nightmares. The talk did not mention society’s need to access and use that data. Taking back control of data by giving control to individuals misses out the challenges of digital inclusion and the role of other important parts of society like families, communities and nations. Different levels of control, rights and responsibilities are likely to need to given to these different groups. To give just one example vital medical research and national statistics need to use large amounts of personal data, this can’t be neglected or left solely to the decisions of individuals.

But, as I realised, this time I was the one allowing my political history to do the interpretation for me and I was the one who wasn’t listening to the underlying argument. Tav Kotka was using language that built on his political history while talking in English to a Finnish audience. Even though I work for a global organisation my initial reaction was from a UK perspective. My bad.

The political debate about data is happening now

The EU is currently discussing complex concepts such as data control and data ownership through the free flow of data initiative. Major geopolitical organisations, like the EU, can have a large impact on countries outside their membership, the UK government has committed to following current EU data protection regulation after it exits the EU. That EU debate involves politicians from multiple countries, each with their own rich histories and perspectives. There are many other debates in countries around the world.

If you want to help build a great future for data then as well as building new services you may want to get involved in either this or other multinational, national and local debates.

But if you do, remember to think about politics: both other people’s politics and your own. That way you will be best placed to help people think about the decisions not in terms of traditional left and right-wing politics but instead in terms more suited to the different challenges and possibilities of data.