Putting the Human into Data-Driven Economies

September 20, 2021

Written by Alex Lawrence

There has been much made of the lack of trust in institutions recently, especially in light of the Covid-19 pandemic. Partly this relates to trust in the information being disseminated, but also to their gathering and use of personal data.   

Advertising-driven “attention economy” services reinforce an overused, but pithy, quotation that “If you’re not paying for the product, you are not the customer; you are the product being sold”. Regardless of the contested truth of that statement, the popularity of the sentiment reflects a public perception that the relationship between consumers and those using their data is in some way broken.  

As a response to this challenge, the World Economic Forum released in September a white paper focusing on “Empowered Data Societies: A Human-Centric Approach to Data Relationships”, a collaboration with the City of Helsinki.  

As they describe it, the tension between privacy and sharing useful data derives from the way in which the data is being gathered principally to benefit companies or organisations. Instead, the white paper’s authors propose “not simply to make data open and available but to do so in a way that focuses on the values, needs and expectations of individuals, communities and societies.” So what does that mean in practice and how does it differ from today’s models? Is it the data equivalent of greenwashing? 

Seeking Trust 

Jan Vapaavuori, a self-described urban activist and former Mayor of Helsinki, observed that trust is not something easy to build. Speaking in a recent webinar related to the research, he highlighted the fact that public institutions hold essential and personal information about people such as health records, benefits, and more.  

The way that this is safeguarded and used makes a huge difference to public trust in those institutions. “I don’t think there’s a simple silver bullet for that one, and there’s no big secret.”  

While the Nordic countries’ trust in government tends to be relatively high, “It’s the work which we have done in the Nordic countries since the eighties, for four decades, starting from a really transparent government to treatment of all people, and so on and so on. Trust is something which you need to build, and it takes years and years and years. Then you can actually lose it quite quickly,” Vapaavuori said. 

However, as Yannis Kotziagkiaouridis, Global Chief Data and Analytics Officer at Edelman Data & Intelligence, pointed out in the same forum, “People themselves have changed the expectations that they have from businesses. They are more driven by the ‘we’ than the ‘me’. They trust governments less. Businesses actually have become the most trusted institution based on our research for the first time, especially after the pandemic […]. Lastly, people do expect businesses to help solve societal problems.” 

He observed that “A human-centric approach to data is one that requires that data is gifted. And I specifically use the word ‘gifted’ from people to organizations for the purpose of mutual value exchange.”  

The idea that there is a real exchange of value, rather than an extraction of it, is critical in building trust according to Kotziagkiaouridis. Edelman, as a leading advertising and marketing firm, understands this dynamic well.  

“If I tell you I want to have access to all your voice data to be able to create better products and services for you, would you accept that?” he asked, setting out the typical position today for digital service providers. He then gave an alternative, more human-centric approach: “Saying ‘I want to have access to all your voice data, and on a weekly basis I will give you coaching on how to have better arguments with your team or how to be less stressed’, that utility is what makes the difference. […] Are you going to use the data you’re asking to collect for my value as well?” 

Design for Humans  

The question of what “value” looks like in a human-centric environment is itself a thorny issue. “We are all different as human beings, we all have different needs and requirements,” Claudia Juech, Vice-President at the Patrick J. McGovern Foundation noted, highlighting the inconsistency between this and traditional digital service design approaches. 

“Often when we think about using technology, we think about efficiencies, optimisation and the 80:20 rule. If it works for 80%, that is good enough – that gets us to success,” she said.  

“But in the case of many technologies, that means that we leave people behind, often the most vulnerable that need our support the most. And so I see the promise of data-empowered societies in the sense that we can start to understand what the differentiated needs are; that we can guide more targeted interventions; that we know what interactions and supports are the most successful; that we can use automation to free up human resources where they’re most needed.” 

While there is clearly a humanitarian benefit in the use of human-centric data and design, Juliana Vida, Group Vice-President at Splunk, also underlined the cost efficiencies it brings to the companies using it. She shared a story from her military days to demonstrate the risks of missing out on the “messy” human element.  

“We were asked to test a new survival radio. And we were given this practice radio to walk around a parking lot and pretend that somehow we were in water – we’d been shot down or crashed and we were supposed to try to get a signal on this radio. 

“The person that was leading the experiment told us ‘Now take the radio and turn six turns on the dial, try to find the signal, and then you have to put the saltwater battery in. You have to screw the cap and make sure that you turn it 10 times, otherwise there’s going to be water intrusion.’ And so we’re looking at this radio and we’re thinking, ‘You gotta be kidding.’ 

“People used data to create a radio that’s unusable, because the human being that’s supposed to use it is probably injured, frozen, scared – might be trying to get away from someone trying to take them captive. 

“Technology can do a lot, but without thinking about the end user and how that human being might use the data, you could have disastrous results and a waste a whole lot of time and money.” 

Kotziagkiaouridis brings this back to the concept of trust and, for businesses, acting in a way consistent with the brand’s positioning. “Empathy is that common ground between how I act and what I do as a business and who I serve. So empathy by itself creates more trust,” he noted.  

Trusted sites are liable to generate more traffic, and therefore data. “There is a virtuous circle that can be created between empathy creating trust; trust drives more data; and data drives more empathy. That’s the value creation we want to be in.” 

Human-Centric Helsinki  

The Finnish city of Helsinki played a major role in the white paper because of the way they have structured and used their data. Jan Vapaavuori, former Mayor of Helsinki, observed that “it’s important to understand that the core purpose of a city is to provide better services to residents. And when I say so, I mean to all equally. Understand that you really have to keep people in the centre and that data and technology is actually only a tool to make the everyday life of your inhabitants better.” 

An example of the human-centric services Helsinki is now creating, the city offers parents of pre-school age children a spot at a pre-school facility that they can accept with a simple text message. The city takes the initiative to contact the families, saving the parents the job of search and enrolment. Meanwhile the automated service also simplifies the administrative burden for the public sector. Ironically, for a “smart city”, the data involved is remarkably straightforward. 

“It’s actually about the quite simple issues. I mean, the only data which we had to recover and combine was the age of the kids, the addresses of the parents and the addresses of the pre-school facilities,” said Vapaavuori. 

“The only thing the parents needed to do was to accept or not to accept. And actually, I think it was more than 90% who accepted.”  

“We are indeed beginning to pay a lot of attention to all the basics: basic infrastructure and basic capabilities. And also in understanding that in today’s world and especially in tomorrow’s world, it’s not about having some people who are able to utilise new technologies, but it’s about educating the whole staff and everyone in the city, including all of our residents.” 

While there is a considerable way to go in developing consistent human-centric data societies, the argument for them as an alternative to prevailing approaches to data is being set out and the nature of specific challenges are being outlined and addressed across both civil society and business.  

Image courtesy of Yan Wong from Pixabay

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