Data is the currency of the 21st century

Over the last 18 months my area of research has shifted from focusing on the infrastructure that supports data, to understanding data and the value one can derive from data. In my quest to unlock value from data I have researched many topics. From conventional business intelligence methods, to data visualisation, statistics, machine learning, artificial neural networks, probabilistic programming and cognitive computing. Suffice to say it is a lot to take on in a short amount of time (and my head still hurts). What I have come to appreciate is, that much of the data we now generate contains invisible value that needs to be explored and unlocked. Let me explain.

From the beginning of time, the human race has collected data to support decision making. Data from surveys, data from forms, data from experiments and tests, data from the optical lens, data from analogue to digital converters. This data has been used to understand the universe, to find meaning and support objectivity. However, the amount of data and the diversity of data we can generate is limited by the methods available to capture, store, process and analyse the data.

Thanks to the digital revolution, we now have a deluge of diverse data available. We generate inordinate amounts of data in the form of speech, images and text from social media platforms, mobile devices and sensors. From this data companies can infer what you like, what you feel, what you believe in, what you are doing, where you are going, who you interact with, who you admire and what you might do next.

The amount of data we generated in each decade is orders of magnitude higher than the previous decade. This data along with advances in computational processing capacity and artificial intelligence allow us to observe and recognise relationships in the universe that previously were invisible to any human being.

This revolution has led the major corporations into an artificial intelligence arms race. What may not be obvious to many is the main ingredient for this arms race is the data.  Just like previous industrial revolutions which led to the mass accumulation of energy resources and minerals by a select group of families, the same can be said today with major organisations like Google, Facebook, Amazon, Baidu and Microsoft. These organisations had the foresight to recognise that data drives artificial intelligence and artificial intelligence creates an unreasonable advantage.

But what can AI possibly do with the data, you ask? With data streaming from sight (images), sound (microphone) and touch (screen) sensors one can apply AI to understand what you are doing, feeling, saying and seeing. AI can consider the connections and interactions between the data from multiple points of view (human senses) to build a greater understanding of the environment. Consider a little experiment. Next time you speak to someone, close your eyes and try to imagine how they are feeling. Are they happy, are they sad, are they calm, are they angry? The human brain can associate emotion from speech, the same way we associate objects through the visual cortex. Now, do the same but with your eyes open. Are you more confident in your answer?

With that said, let’s reiterate the potential of data. Data allows us to reason about the world around us. It allows us to draw conclusions about a thought, an instinct, a situation, or a question, with a degree of certainty. Data supports our objectives. Be it, make more money, solve a problem or prevent a situation. Data allows us to formulate a plan for the future or adjust our course. Data helps us prioritise, supports our curiosity, our desire to learn, advance and adapt to changing conditions. Data allows us to personalise interactions with our customers, our employees and with each other, in real-time, at immense scale.

I surmise that data rich organisations and governments will be able to do a lot of good with the data. They will be able to solve crimes, prevent the spread of diseases, anticipate social unrest and reduce our dependency on fossil fuels. They will also have the ability to predict economic conditions, domestic trends and worldwide events.

To remain relevant in this era, we all need to embrace and understand data. First and foremost, data needs to be considered in our products and interactions with customers, partners and each other. The right data needs to be generated, captured and stored where it can be explored, processed and analysed in order to infer meaning and support decisions. Once we are done with the data it needs to be preserved and protected like precious books that we refer to from time to time, to avoid mistakes in the past and strengthen our understanding of the present.

To summarise, there are a few thoughts I would like to leave you with. They are:

  1. Never underestimate the reasoning power of data to support understanding
  2. Consider whether you are capturing the right data and the data available at your disposal
  3. Understanding what you might infer from the data will guide you in the types of data to capture
  4. Consider whether you are using data to derive an edge

It doesn’t matter whether you are an individual, company, not for profit, government or educational institution. Those with the right data will have the main ingredient to advance. Those without data will fall further behind.

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