Data as Blood
Why the rest of us need a more human and concrete data metaphor
Frequently when people talk or write about data it’s often cloaked in business jargon or associated with distant ideas like "the cloud". Media coverage about how businesses are rushing to exploit data and how data scientists are going to take over the world, are accompanied with images of (mostly white) people standing in front of floating bar charts, Minority Report style. But how helpful are these metaphors and images in giving people an understanding of the power and importance of data? None of these ways of describing data seem particularly useful in gaining a greater insight into how data on us is used, or how it makes money for others. The big data cloud can seem distant, confusing and irrelevant to most people.
Us ordinary, non-technical people don’t yet have good images or metaphors for data which help us understand its uses and power, and importantly don’t have one which relates to our everyday experience. Arguably even the word "data" is vague and too technical for most. Ask a random stranger about "data" and they may be more likely to tell you about how many gigabytes they’ve got left on their mobile phone plan than the information held about them by their GP or bank. And if they do mention their Facebook likes, their utility statements or search history, do they have a sense of how the data is used, how much it is worth, or how it is being used to influence their behaviour?
Having spent some time thinking about data literacy for non-technical people, it strikes me that translating a relatively new concept like data into something that people can grasp could help more people appreciate its uses and broader implications. There are lots of ways to support people to become data literate and appropriate training and tools clearly are central to this. But if people don’t come to feel comfortable and familiar with some of the core ideas pretty quickly, then much of the training won’t translate into common sense or everyday behaviour. One way to help get a clearer feel for the issues and dynamics involved would be to have images and metaphors for data which seem more relatable and concrete.
Some of the metaphors for data currently circulating are more concrete than some of the pictures found on stock image websites. However they tend to be helpful for businesses and technical audiences more than individuals. They’re not designed to help us understand key aspects of data which are most relevant to our concerns. “Data is the new oil” and “Data as infrastructure” both convey the valuableness of data but give the sense of data as a solely industrial commodity. “Data as the new oil”, in particular, makes it sound as if it is a limited fossil fuel, not owned by anyone until it is discovered, ready to be turned to commercial application by the most innovative (and perhaps ruthless) prospector. It doesn’t give people the sense that data is about them and can be used for their benefit.
Instead, we could understand key aspects of data, it’s preciousness and how it is (and should be) used by others, by thinking of it as "blood" rather than "oil". Arguably that this is more helpful for the average person. It suggests that in many instances, data comes from us and conveys the most intimate things about us. Data can be used by others much like our blood. It also helps to convey aspects of the relationship between us as producers of data and the way in which governments and companies use this information about us.
“Data as blood” could be a way of conveying a mutually beneficial vision for data use which better conveys the relationships between producers and users of data - data as “lifeblood” perhaps. It brings to mind an ecosystem of data use much like how blood is used in the body. Here data could be seen as being helpful to transport information between organs (organisations) so that they can perform functions which are beneficial to the wider ecosystem. How some organs (organisations) could perform certain functions such as produce and consume, enrich, clean and recycle blood (data). One of the main issues I’ve had with the current description of open data, data which is published for free and without restriction, is that it focuses too much on the act of publication i.e. pumping out data for others to use. Seeing data as blood within a body (ecosystem) could better help people imagine how open data, or any type of data for that matter, might be used responsibly by others and to the benefit of a number of organisations by being in constant circulation and undergoing various transformations. And importantly, society has decided that blood should only be donated not sold which is how many open data evangelists would like us to make data available.
Another way of seeing data as ‘blood’ could also help people think about data privacy issues and the morality of data use. Perhaps we should start to see those organisations that build their business models on our data as blood-sucking parasites, slowly growing fat like leeches whilst we become weakened? Or worse, they are like vampires, voraciously hungry for our data / blood, willing to stop at nothing to drain us completely. Perhaps this visceral image would be more likely to help shape behaviours and lead people to be more picky about making their data available. If people think that they might be weakened by parting with something as precious as the blood running through their veins they might think twice about providing personal data in some situations. This is possibly too strong an image for some, too focused on the dangers of exploitation and the risks of misuse of personal data. Indeed, the association with pain and death may stop people from engaging at all and make them retreat to the safe, distant fluffy big data cloud idea.
As with any metaphor, it is imperfect but potentially no more so than the other metaphors we already have. I may have missed something fundamental about the nature of data and no doubt I could also be corrected for my understanding of how blood actually works. But potentially “data as blood” is a step along the way for ordinary people to grapple with the preciousness of their personal data and how the ecosystem should treat it, as much as “data as oil” helps those who are commercial users of data see it as something to base their business on.