The dark side of data - O'Reilly Radar 2012-07-24


“A few weeks ago, Tom Slee published ‘Seeing Like a Geek,’ a thoughtful article on the dark side of open data. He starts with the story of a Dalit community in India, whose land was transferred to a group of higher cast Mudaliars through bureaucratic manipulation under the guise of standardizing and digitizing property records... it gave a wealthier, more powerful group a chance to erase older, traditional records that hadn’t been properly codified. One effect of passing laws requiring standardized, digital data is to marginalize all data that can’t be standardized or digitized, and to marginalize the people who don’t control the process of standardization. That’s a serious problem. It’s sad to see oppression and property theft riding in under the guise of transparency and openness. But the issue isn’t open data, but how data is used... A group like DataKind could go in and figure out a way to codify that older generation of knowledge... if that isn’t acceptable to the government, it would be clear that the problem lies in political manipulation, not in the data itself. And note that a government could wipe out generations of ‘inaccurate records’ without any requirement that the new records be open. In years past the monied classes would have just taken what they wanted, with the government’s support. The availability of open data gives a plausible pretext, but it’s certainly not a prerequisite (nor should it be blamed) for manipulation by the 0.1%. Slee is on shakier ground when he claims that the digitization of books has allowed Amazon to undermine publishers and booksellers. Yes, there’s technological upheaval, and that necessarily drives changes in business models... O’Reilly Media is thriving, in part because we have a viable digital publishing strategy; publishers without a viable digital strategy are failing. But what about booksellers? The demise of the local bookstore has, in my observation, as much to do with Barnes & Noble superstores ... as with Amazon, and it played out long before the rise of ebooks... There are also countervailing benefits. With ebooks, access is democratized... At O’Reilly, we now sell ebooks in countries we were never able to reach in print. Our print sales overseas never exceeded 30% of our sales; for ebooks, overseas represents more than half the total, with customers as far away as Azerbaijan... Data inevitably brings privacy issues into play. As Slee points out,(and as Jeff Jonas has before him), apparently insignificant pieces of data can be put together to form a surprisingly accurate picture of who you are, a picture that can be sold. It’s useless to pretend that there won’t be increased surveillance in any forseeable future, or that there won’t be an increase in targeted advertising (which is, technically, much the same thing). We can bemoan that shift, celebrate it, or try to subvert it, but we can’t pretend that it isn’t happening. We shouldn’t even pretend that it’s new, or that it has anything to do with openness. What is a credit bureau if not an organization that buys and sells data about your financial history, with no pretense of openness? Jonas’s concept of ‘privacy by design’ is an important attempt to address privacy issues in big data. Jonas envisions a day when ‘I have more privacy features than you’ is a marketing advantage ... I do not think we can get to Jonas’s world, where privacy is something consumers demand, without going through a stage where data is open and public. It’s too easy to live with the illusion of privacy that thrives in a closed world. I agree that the notion that ‘open data’ is an unalloyed public good is mistaken, and Tom Slee has done a good job of pointing that out. It underscores the importance of of a still-nascent ethical consensus about how to use data, along with the importance of data watchdogs... I am convinced that private data is a public bad, and I’m less afraid of data that’s open. That doesn’t make it necessarily a good; that depends on how the data is used, and the people who are using it.”



08/16/2012, 06:08

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Tags: oa.business_models oa.publishers oa.comment oa.legislation oa.india oa.standards oa.books oa.sustainability oa.digitization oa.benefits oa.datakind oa.government oa.economics_of oa.south



Date tagged:

07/24/2012, 16:34

Date published:

07/24/2012, 17:08