Do You Really Own Your Data? Prove It.

Posted on November 2, 2014

In the run-up to this year's election, which saw the appearance of Nicky Hager's book Dirty Politics, John Key made the observation that the book's source material was stolen information.

Photo Credit: *sax via Compfight cc

Let's steer clear of any politics and take a closer look at the claim that information could be stolen.


Information isn't just any old commodity. If you have a widget, and someone steals that widget from you, you no longer have that widget to use and enjoy. That clearly is theft, but with information the situation isn't so clear cut. If someone 'steals' your information, you still have the original information at your disposal to use and enjoy.

And unlike the stolen widget, it can't simply be returned to its original owner. Regardless of how you obtained the information - whether it was given to you, found by you when someone discarded it, or whether you overheard something intended for another audience - once you know something you can't 'un-know' it.

Just like in the old BNZ ad campaign which asked, 'Is money good? Is money bad?', it's neither. The important thing is how you use it.

Similarly with information, it would seem it's less about how the information is acquired, and more about what you do (or don't do) with it that counts.

For instance, if I had a design for a new tennis racquet that hit the ball harder and more accurately and someone 'stole' the design information, it probably doesn't become theft unless they used that design to make and sell tennis rackets themselves. But if they used the knowledge of a new competing product in the market to spur them on to design something like a racquet string that could put more spin on the ball, then suddenly it doesn't look like theft any more.


And that's because of one crucial property that turns data into information: context.

Acquiring that information has the more grandiose labels of intelligence or market knowledge. The importance of intelligence when undertaking any sort of business has been recognised for thousands of years. In his 500 BC book The Art of War, Sun Tzu wrote, 'Know your enemy and know yourself and you can fight a thousand battles without disaster'. Those generals who still follow his teachings to the letter rarely or never lose.

Privacy issues have raised their head a number of times in recent years, yet even a cursory look at the legislation reveals that there is a wide gap between what many people consider to be private and the protection that the law provides. When in doubt, it's always worth going back to the source. Examining legislation is now much easier since its publication on the web.

Interestingly, the principles of the Privacy Act are more about ensuring that all practical steps have been taken to ensure accuracy and that the data isn't being misused, rather than protecting information that you as an individual might be sensitive about.

The principles of both publishing and broadcasting have been established now for hundreds of years. Once you distribute a message or idea on the airwaves or in written form, such as in a book, you have authorised the receiver of that message to examine its contents, to make their own interpretation, to draw their own conclusions, and to make their own decisions. Once you have broadcast or published, you have also given away any control over who may hear or read your message or idea.

You may decide to limit who can access your message by adding a security layer, through encoding, or by writing your message in a language that only a segment of the population can read, but these measures do not change the underlying principles of broadcasting and publishing.

What you are reading now is intended to only be available to those who have subscribed to our newsletter, but once it is posted it is 'out there' to be intercepted, forwarded, cut and pasted, blogged and indexed by Google. Not only that, long before it was published in the newsletter, it was being broadcast over WiFi as it was being written, and saved to the cloud. That means it was readily accessible for anyone with the means to do so. This was a decision and a risk that we were prepared to take in creating this information.

And then there is all the data that we allow to be harvested every time we use a website, on any smartphone app where we have enabled location services, on call logs, in image galleries, etc. The big data approach to harvesting data, and the trends that can be inferred from that data, again challenge the idea that our activities, thoughts and conversations are private. Again, whether that's a problem or not comes down to how the harvesters use the data and the context within which it is used.


Which brings us back to context. One definition of information is 'data in context'. So what is that context? To transform data into information, you need to have a problem that requires a solution. You also need an audience to receive the information, and someone who is going to make a decision based on the information to address the problem.

The final element of context is the difference it will make within its context. Information should represent the difference between the situation that exists and the outcome that is desired. It should also represent the difference that it will make (to society, to the environment, to the bottom line, to product quality, to efficiency. etc.) when decisions are made based upon the information to address the problem that has been identified.


As geospatial professionals, that's where we come in. When we get asked to make a map, or undertake some geospatial analysis, how often do we sit down and define the problem to be solved, identify who the decision maker is, or what decision is that they need to make? And how often do we ensure that our work is geared to making that difference in explicit terms? To do so at the early stages of every project ensures that our work is as effective as it can be, and gets the right results out the first time, without rework.

Formatting of the final data should be done in such a way that the decision appears obvious to the decision maker. This requires the geospatial professional to have produced the output reliably (i.e., so it is statistically beyond challenge), and ethically, so the decision maker is presented with objective information rather than with a preferred slant of the author. You can always tell when you have created good information because it is clear, simple and compelling.

The property of information that we love the best is that the world works far more effectively when information is shared. Great effort (not to mention government policy both here and abroad) is being directed at making data and information as accessible and shareable as possible. When we work effectively and collaboratively with common data to make the world a better place, we know that the context for how the data is being used is the right one.

Given this context, the idea that information could be stolen doesn't really seem to fit very well.

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