Data collection for the greater good: how data influences & improves our lives

By Fergus Kelly, Managing Director of Capstone.

In recent times, the media has shone a spotlight on the amount of data we willingly or unwillingly share about ourselves, sparking fear and outrage amongst the public. This mindset was particularly intensified after the Facebook and Cambridge Analytica scandal, with many people believing that businesses collect our personal information and use it to predict our behaviour or sell it for profit.

Because of the scaremongering, there’s a prevalent perception that collecting and mining data is a bad thing, something organisations do against our will. But take a step back to question this thinking. Is data collection really a bad thing? Is it really as frightening as we are led to believe?

How data can positively influence our daily lives

From what I’ve seen, there are enormous benefits to data collection, on both a small scale (helping us in our day to day lives) and on a large scale (benefitting society as a whole).

Through my own work in the industry, I have seen the collection and manipulation of data lead to:

  • Time saving – self-service platforms can tailor the customer journey to only offer customers relevant products or services. This leads to significant time savings for end-users, and provides them with a cleaner, easier to use interface.
  • Sales assistance – platforms such as Amazon often make bespoke suggestions and recommendations to shoppers based on data collected from other shoppers (think of ‘people who bought this also bought…’). This is helpful to shoppers in many instances but has also been shown to boost the average basket value of an online shopper.
  • Better customer service – data mined from thousands of customer interactions enable customer service agents to offer correct advice to their customers, ensuring faster, better problem resolution the first time. This results in cost savings for businesses, but more importantly happier customers.
The powerful benefits of data collection

When you begin to look at the power of data collection on a larger scale, the benefits can become highly significant for the greater good of society. Some of the examples I’ve recently read about include:

  • Data collection in the motor industry may lead to reductions in car accidents and road deaths. Manufacturers such as Tesla regularly collect driving data – (something that has proven controversial in itself). This data can be used to remotely diagnose and resolve issues, ranging from a simple fault, to a serious safety issue. If the car is involved in an accident, a detailed report can be generated and sent to the manufacturer, which highlights the circumstances of the accident. This allows Tesla to learn more about the conditions and issues that led to the accident, compare it to other incidents, and look for a way to remedy them in the future.
  • AI can be used to improve disease detection and surgical outcomes. Algorithms are getting better at detecting pre-cancerous and cancerous cells, reducing the risk of human error in diagnosis. Likewise, robots are increasingly being used to assist surgeons with surgical procedures. They can reduce surgeon variation, and help surgeons better understand the techniques that align with better outcomes. Although the technology is still in its infancy, the effectiveness is progressing rapidly as health systems collect more and more data.
  • Data is also used to help educators make informed decisions that positively affect student outcomes. Schools generally collect massive amounts of data on their students, from attendance to test results. By partnering with data analysts to analyse test results and work samples, schools, colleges and universities can use this data to better identify learning disabilities and address different academic needs appropriately.
The data skills shortage

From what I have seen, there appears to be a very small pool of highly qualified data engineers (driving these pioneering changes and outcomes), who are in high demand and short supply. These data masters are educated to an extremely advanced technical level.

So, whilst businesses are going to great lengths and technical efforts to collect data wherever they can, most of the data being collected will never lead to industry changes or exciting outcomes. Without the people and skills to respond, the data remains largely ‘unactioned intelligence’.

In fact, according to recent studies, top executives have admitted that the adoption of AI and new data intelligence is a major challenge. And not because of the technology, but because of the lack of people available to do something extraordinary with the data.

So, while it’s my opinion that data collection is positive, even those who don’t agree with me don’t really need to worry right now! In the fast-paced world we live in, data quickly ages, and it is unlikely data collected today, will be of relevance tomorrow.

Take personal responsibility; stop to see the greater good

If people really are worried about their data being collected, they need to become more personally responsible – by conducting their own due diligence or reading the T’s & C’s when signing up to a new service. I found the results of a recent study interesting, where it revealed that 91% of people consent to the T’s & C’s without reading them, increasing to 97% in the younger generation – are these the same people who are afraid of data capture?

I firmly believe we are in danger of getting caught up in the fear and scaremongering of data collection. We shouldn’t let this stop us from seeing the greater good – both in our day to day lives, and even bigger than that – for society as a whole.

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