The data wars


"What we can do now has never been possible before. The next IT revolution is happening in the 'I' - the information - not the 'T.'" --Dr. Mike Lynch, Autonomy founder

The recent events in Newtown, CT are beyond disturbing. I won't debate gun control laws or the Second Amendment on this site, but the fallout of the tragedy is playing out in very interesting ways. The weapon of choice among many: data.

A TechCrunch article described what happened in the aftermath of the shooting:

A week after the Newtown massacre, The Journal News published an interactive Google Map with the names and addresses of gun permit owners in select New York cities. The bold move has escalated into a transparency arms race, after a Connecticut lawyer posted the phone number and addresses of the Journal‘s staff, including a Google Maps satellite image of the publisher’s home. “I don’t know whether the Journal’s publisher Janet Hasson is a permit holder herself, but here’s how to find her to ask,” read Christopher Fountain’s blog post. The double irony here is that open data was heralded as a tool of enlightened civic dialog, and has been co-opted for fierce partisanship, bordering on public endangerment.

New York newspaper posts map with names and addresses of handgun permit owners (update) | The Verge

In a word, wow.

Data as a Weapon

This isn't the first salvo in the data wars - and it sure won't be the last. Facebook keeps its data behind a walled garden - i.e., away from Google's indexing software. Amazon makes it very difficult for others to determine who has bought products from its site. In 2012, the Obama team used Big Data very effectively to pinpoint key votes and, arguably more important, potentially campaign contributors. It's one of the key reasons he was elected to a second term.

I could keep going, but you get my drift.

As Stewart Brand has said, "Information wants to be free." That may well be, but free and neutral are hardly one and the same. Data is increasingly being used as a weapon to advance political and economic agendas. Don't expect this to stop anytime soon.

Simon Says

The quote above from Dr. Lynch is more apropos than ever: The next revolution involves information rather than technology. I'd argue that relatively few organizations are harnessing the power of Big Data. That has to change.

Think defense. Think offense. Think data. 


What say you?

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About Author

Phil Simon

Author, Speaker, and Professor

Phil Simon is a keynote speaker and recognized technology expert. He is the award-winning author of eight management books, most recently Analytics: The Agile Way. His ninth will be Slack For Dummies (April, 2020, Wiley) He consults organizations on matters related to strategy, data, analytics, and technology. His contributions have appeared in The Harvard Business Review, CNN, Wired, The New York Times, and many other sites. He teaches information systems and analytics at Arizona State University's W. P. Carey School of Business.

1 Comment

  1. Phil, it’s always interesting what is possible and allowable in one country and not in another country.

    As a foreigner the gun control debate in the US is some kind of surrealistic. But sure, let’s not dig into that.

    In the field of open data there is a lot of exciting things going on with ties to data quality and master data management.

    In my first home country, Denmark, basic public sector data about locations, properties, companies and in some degree citizens has been made free to use and free of charge by start of this year. In my second home country, UK, there is a debate right now about going in the same direction – at least for location data.

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