The Data Revolution: Here’s how data has been molded into the fabric of our daily lives today

Illustration by @neemascribbles

“Data is the new oil” is this simple yet very meaningful mantra repeated by the media and technologists in today’s modern world. Whether it is true or not is a subject of much debate; some believe it to be the gospel truth, while others are skeptical. That being said, the effect that data has had on our world today is undeniable. The sheer scale at which it is produced, and the seemingly infinite possibilities in which it can be applied for good, as well as evil, make it a commodity of immense untapped value.

The use of data has trickled down into every aspect of our lives. Whether you are shopping online for a new mattress, or trying to find directions to the dentist’s clinic, or filling out a form to become a citizen in a new country, you are producing and consuming data generated from a multitude of sources and points, all in an effort to make your life easier and smoother. Below are some of the key pivot points of the data revolution as it exists today.

Work

The use of data has brought enormous changes to the workplace. With the use of data tools such as cloud storage, coupled with collaborative tools such as Google Workplace and Slack, organizations are able to achieve more efficiency even with limited staff, and remoting working which has become the norm since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic is now more optimal. Businesses are able to leverage their data in order to make the most informed decisions towards business growth and development. For example, in the service industry, one can be able to determine an optimal number of service providers to have available on a given day.

Entertainment

Almost all of the media entertainment that we consume today, ranging from movies to music to TV shows to podcasts, exists on online streaming platforms. The migration of this media entertainment to online spaces has allowed for the group of streaming giants such as Netflix, Spotify, and Disney+, to name a few. These companies, in an effort to stay ahead of the competition, analyze user data and optimize in order to create a custom experience for each. This manifests itself in the form of curated music playlists on Spotify, filled with music it knows you like, or suggests movies to watch on Netflix, based on your previous watch history and patterns.

E-Learning

The education space is no exception to these changes. Especially since the onset of the pandemic in which school children of all ages have been forced to stay at home, and therefore turn to online schooling platforms and tools such as Google Classroom and Zoom. These platforms optimized user data in order to provide a premium experience and facilitate a conducive learning environment for students. Data use on the platforms can also be manifested in recommendation systems that allow users to follow specific tracks tailored toward particular interests or specific backgrounds.

E-governance

Governments have historically been custodians of troves of public data. However, the data has mostly been stored away in dusty basements and server rooms and never made available to the public, or made us of. Now though, with the momentum of the data revolution, governments have been awakened to the fact that they can analyze and use these new insights to improve service delivery to citizens, be it in healthcare, civil services, transport, and security. For example, data from CCTV cameras can be used to improve crime predictability and fight against terrorism. Data from traffic cameras can be used to investigate causes of congestion in cities and inform policies and infrastructure solutions on the matter.

Artificial Intelligence in Mobile devices

In a nutshell, AI describes the ability of computers to learn and adapt, based on large amounts of data, to further optimize their functionality. One of the most common applications of AI today is in our smartphones. Everyone who has access or uses a smartphone today can be exposed to AI in word prediction in the smartphone keyboard, facial recognition in the smartphone cameras, etc. On a larger scale, AI has more impactful applications, such as making data analysis much more prescriptive and predictive, as well as optimizing data tools across all sectors, be it work, manufacturing, education, entertainment, etc.

Transportation

Smart map tools such as Google Maps have become such an important tool in everyday life today. When you start your car to go to work in the morning or go on a road trip, you don’t need to open a big folded map anymore. Just from your phone, you can have access to information on the fastest route to use, traffic insights as well as the expected time of Arrival (ETA).

Even the cars themselves are equipped with computers to collect data on fuel consumption, mileage, battery levels, surroundings and enable automated driving, among others. This data is useful to the driver to improve their experience as well as to the car manufacturer to learn about user behavior as well as to improve the cars to make them safer, faster, and more efficient.

The airline industry has also undergone a huge transformation for the better as a result of data. From the ticketing and scheduling of flights to the management of air traffic and the automation of planes, data is incorporated into all levels of the industry.

Online shopping

The data revolution has led to the rise of mammoth online retailers such as Amazon and Alibaba, who are in the business of selling to you everything you can ever need. These tech/e-commerce giants rely heavily on user-generated data on their platforms to analyze the spending patterns, buying habits, and interests of users to predict what they might want to buy next. As such, every user on a platform like Amazon has a tailored experience and sees items based on their data. This data also informed targeted advertising strategies.

News

Data has an important role in both how news is made today and how you receive it. Reporters today can rely on various tools today to analyze patterns in developing stories, comb through thousands of people’s comments on social media, as well as visualize these insights to consumers to create an overall more refined news service. On the other hand, the way in which consumers get their news has changed as a result of the data revolution. Subscription services like Google News or Apple News as well as social media sites will analyze data on what you are more inclined to, as well as what stories are trending, to tailor their recommendations to you.

Data and the COVID-19 pandemic

The coronavirus has spread around the world with a speed and aggression that could not have been foreseen and that is unprecedented in modern times. It has brought untold suffering and completely altered our way of life. That being said, data stands at the forefront of solutions to end the pandemic. Data collected from testing centres and contact tracing exercises can be analyzed to track down where the virus is most rapidly spreading in communities, to inform policies such as lockdowns, and to identify gaps in prevention measures. Data from vaccine testing exercises can be used to determine the efficacy of the vaccine as well as inform future vaccine creation processes.

It should be highlighted, however, that the data revolution is not without fault.

All this data, if mismanaged or left in the wrong hands, can have devastating effects. For example, there are risks that come with putting the personal data of children online, such as exposing them to cyberbullying, sexual predators, and fraud, among others. Citizen data, kept by governments, if breached can lead to identity theft and can be used by terrorists to exact harm on people.

In recent times, data companies such as Google, Apple, Facebook, and Amazon have come under heavy- scrutiny for what is seen to be exploitation of user data for profit and spying and users without their consent. A case in point is the Cambridge Analytica scandal in 2016. In light of this, a wave of legislation is mounting up in a bid to put these modern behemoths in check.

Written By Uri Ludger, Data Communications fellow at Pollicy.

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