Data is the New Currency of the World

Winner Of CSC September 2019 Essay Competition : Mah Tilat Tayyab

Data seems to have become the holy grail of everything “DIGITAL”. Many experts extoll the significance of data in today’s world by calling it the most important currency of the times we live in. Every business, every organization, every government scheme seems to hinge its decisions, marketing and operations on the data involved. As per the TCS global trend study of 2015, the IoT (Internet of Things) owed its growth to the customer data that was available. The study extolled how customer data was key to delivering custom made products, better customer service, razor sharp targeted marketing and so on, which begs the question, “What is data that gives it this much importance?”

First, let’s understand the term “data”. In short, everything is data. Our DNA, heritage, skin colour, educational qualifications, our doctor visits, our phone calls, our blood count ... everything is data.

Up until the digitization of pretty much everything around us, most of this data was really difficult to reference. That which was actually documented like fingerprints, or birth information were known as “records” and were written/put down on paper. Obviously, such records were cumbersome to access and difficult to cross-reference. Additionally, it suffered from the traditional data issues like redundancy and inconsistency, to name the most prevalent ones.

Cut to the present. Today, what we eat, where we go and how often we fall ill is well documented in the recesses of some data storage room. Not only are our shopping habits, hobbies, credit scores just a few clicks away for the person with the “right” privileges, our iris scans, our fingerprints, possibly our DNA and even our day to day conversations are neatly filed away in the form of ‘1’s and ‘0’s ready to be accessed in a jiffy.

Now, not only is the commercial interest of corporates, banks and governments invested in our data, it has the potential of disrupting the traditional ways of working, creating new economies and changing the world completely as we know it now.

With the ever evolving face of currency, we have seen money being transferred digitally thus eliminating the need for hard cash in most transactions. All this and more forces us to re-evaluate our notion of what a currency actually is.

So, is Data really a Currency?

When we think of currency, we typically think of paper notes or coins. Money of this kind isn’t the only kind we know.

Gold is a global currency and has remained so for thousands of years.

Bonds, equities and shares have been used as payment instrument just like silver and gold.

The rise of the crypto currencies is another unexpected phenomenon which is catching on amongst its online users.

Just like currency (or currency adjacents like gold), data is not immune to thievery. Every day we hear of data having been “harvested”, stolen, bought, even lost, and the alarm bells go off in our brains alerting us to a danger we are still beginning to comprehend the magnitude of.

In a nutshell, currency is how we exchange economic value and create measurable wealth across countries and continents over a considerable period of time. Basically if it can serve as a medium of exchange, or be used to pay debt, or can be “cashed out” for goods and services, or has the characteristic to store value for future, thus making it a lucrative commodity to steal, it can be classified as a currency.

Since data has all these characteristics ... and more, we can safely conclude that it has become a potent and precious currency of our times.

“Data is the New Oil”

This declaration by Senior Marketer Clive Humby was first presented in 2006. Now more than a decade later it is truer than ever.

As we can easily see, data alone is inherently powerless. Just as oil is useless crude unless it is processed into precious commodities such as gasoline, plastics or chemicals, in the same manner data is useless unless it is extracted, sifted, transformed and then uploaded into the right places. This process is cryptically known as ETL (extract, transform, load) in the data crunching circles.

Exactly How Potent is Data?

Data, in itself doesn’t pose any major threat to anything nor does it have any significant potential. However, in the right (or wrong hands), with the right technology at disposal and the tools to process the data as per our requirements it can be a behemoth super tool. Data Analysis (including Predictive Analysis which is aimed at predicting future data based on data and trends), Data Mining, IoT, Cloud computing, Machine Learning (a method of designing systems that can learn, adjust, and improve based on the data fed to them), and AI are just few of the technologies used to interpret and transform data.

The Glean of the Digital Goldmine

Since we have already concluded what data does, in fact, possess many of the characteristics of currency we need to open our eyes to how the behemoths of our times - the Googles and Facebooks are mining, analysing and using our data not only to “sell” their different products, but they are also using data and its interpretations to intricately profile individual users in order to be able to construct a spooky yet reasonably accurate predictor of our lives and habits.

Not only Google, but also our governments have the potential of playing with this when they have enough data. No democratically elected government has its hands clean when it comes to exploitation of all means available to win and rule heavy handedly. The CIA has been pressing Google and AT&T (among others) to divulge details of citizens. Except under extraordinary circumstance, the companies have managed to hold their spines intact. In India, however, the private players as well as government agencies are far more subservient to the government, thus exposing the citizens to a danger which need not be spelled. A government which has profiling data, financial data, geographical data, as well as political data of its citizens may turn dictators like Hitler. History does repeat itself and hence the judicious use of data and regulations on “how much”, and “under what circumstances” the governments can access data are really important.

How Data has been a Game Changer in the Indian Context

How data is used to one’s advantage can be seen in its use in the elections. The recently concluded Indian elections of 2019 saw political parties crunch and exploit whatever data they had to their advantage. Similarly, the uproar over the Aadhaar data of the Indian citizens is not new and the concerns are not without basis. Personal data, stored callously can spell big doom in ways that can’t even be imagined in today’s times when data analytics is still in its nascent stage.

When all this is considered, and digested we might conclude that data might become as lethal as any atomic bomb or as precious as the highest valued currency. The man (or woman) with the right data would rule the world, the markets, or even the minds.