The history of innovation is scattered with products and processes which only came into being as a result of an accident or pure serendipity. Microwave ovens, X-ray machines, penicillin, Play-Doh – to name a few – all came about not as a result of being designed from a blank sheet of paper, but by innovators who had the vision and motivation to seek wider applications for what was there in front of them.
This is equally true in the digital world, where technological development relies so much on lateral vision and having a wider perspective on the potential uses of existing technology and information.
In the world of big data, where increasing volumes of information, from a wider variety of sources are being created at ever increasing velocities, the unenviable challenge to those creating or collating the information is to appreciate fully the wider application of the datasets they hold. Indeed, the reality is that those creating or collating the data are not always best-placed to determine its widest applications.
It is perhaps unsurprising that the sales and marketing director for BMW recently revealed to the North American International Auto Show that, not only had his company received a significant number of requests to use data collated by its vehicles, but that such requests were ordinarily declined. This appears to have been prompted by concerns of privacy and the possible unintended consequences of making customer data accessible to third parties, where it may be vulnerable or create an unwanted exposure. BMW will not be alone in this view.
Harnessing the value of data
But rather than simply refusing to countenance the wider use of the data outside the organisation, we need to encourage the opening up of data to third parties, who may have a wider vision of its use, so that its true value can be harnessed.
While privacy is undoubtedly an important consideration in handling consumer data, any wholesale rejection to make the data more widely available on the grounds of privacy risks ignoring its intrinsic value for innovators. It should, of course, be remembered that privacy concerns only arise to the extent that personal data or information is involved.
Accordingly, businesses should focus their attention on the nature and quality of the data captured. An assessment should be made at the outset as to whether it is strictly necessary for data, which has a personal quality to it, to be collated. This fundamental question applies regardless of whether the business is considering the commercialisation of its data.
Personal data management
Assuming personal data is collated, is it essential for the personal element of this data to be retained? If not, there can be no justification for its retention. Put simply, the inadvertent capture and retention of personal data creates unnecessary issues for businesses and should be resisted, wherever possible.
Even if it is necessary to capture and retain personal data, businesses should allow such data to be collected and retained in such a way that it can be suitably anonymised at the earliest possible moment in its lifecycle.
To the extent that it is intended for the data to be presented or made available in a live environment, further attention needs to be given to ensure that the data feed, API or portal is secure – both in terms of allowing the safe transmission of the data and not creating a back door to the business.
Attention to these issues will allow any privacy concerns to be minimised, if not neutralised and will facilitate the commercialisation of data.
Casting the nets for wider applications
What we are seeing at the moment is the fine balance between, on the one hand, the commercial desire of businesses to harness value from their increasingly rich datasets; and, on the other, the recognition that they themselves may not be best-placed to recognise the wider applications for that data and the exposure that might be created for their business in the future.
While the big data of car manufacturers offers opportunities in increased convenience, comfort and safety for consumers, it may be of wider application. Rather than second-guess how their data might be used and stifling technical innovation, businesses should embrace the commercialisation of their big data; focus more on who assumes responsibility for the quality of data and its ultimate use; and, to the extent that the data has to be used in a dynamic setting, implement security measures to prevent access to its core systems.
Penicillin was a chance discovery involving anti-bacterial fungus growing on a discarded, contaminated Petri dish. What innovations could be unlocked if businesses choose to set their data free?
Mark Deem is a partner at Cooley LLP
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This was first published in February 2015