Trustworthy data will transform the world

 at the Financial Times: “The internet’s original sin was identified as early as 1993 in a New Yorker cartoon. “On the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog,” the caption ran beneath an illustration of a pooch at a keyboard. That anonymity has brought some benefits. But it has also created myriad problems, injecting distrust into the digital world. If you do not know the provenance and integrity of information and data, how can you trust their veracity?

That has led to many of the scourges of our times, such as cyber crime, identity theft and fake news. In his Alan Turing Institute lecture in London last week, the American computer scientist Sandy Pentland outlined the massive gains that could result from trusted data.

The MIT professor argued that the explosion of such information would give us the capability to understand our world in far more detail than ever before. Most of what we know in the fields of sociology, psychology, political science and medicine is derived from tiny experiments in controlled environments. But the data revolution enables us to observe behaviour as it happens at mass scale in the real world. That feedback could provide invaluable evidence about which theories are most valid and which policies and products work best.

The promise is that we make soft social science harder and more predictive. That, in turn, could lead to better organisations, fairer government, and more effective monitoring of our progress towards achieving collective ambitions, such as the UN’s sustainable development goals. To take one small example, Mr Pentland illustrated the strong correlation between connectivity and wealth. By studying the telephone records of 100,000 users in south-east Asia, researchers have plotted social connectivity against income. The conclusion: “The more diverse your connections, the more money you have.” This is not necessarily a causal relationship but it does have a strong causal element, he suggested.

Similar studies of European cities have shown an almost total segregation between groups of different socio-economic status. That lack of connectivity has to be addressed if our politics is not to descend further into a meaningless dialogue.

Data give us a new way to measure progress.

For years, the Open Data movement has been working to create public data sets that can better inform decision making. This worldwide movement is prising open anonymised public data sets, such as transport records, so that they can be used by academics, entrepreneurs and civil society groups. However, much of the most valuable data is held by private entities, notably the consumer tech companies, telecoms operators, retailers and banks. “The big win would be to include private data as a public good,” Mr Pentland said….(More)”.