Metaphors are heavily loaded with emotions. Invoking the image of mother as in ‘motherland’ or ‘mother tongue’ can prompt one to give life or take life. Our language is loaded with metaphors. In 2006, Clive Humby coined the phrase “Data is the new oil”. He elaborated by saying that, like oil, data is “valuable, but if unrefined it cannot really be used”.
Over the next decade, this phrase became a buzz word for data professionals, but in public perception, it stank like crude oil because of the baggage of economic exploitation and environmental damage. Big data collectors were pursued by various authorities for anti-trust and privacy concerns. Speaking at the World Economic Forum last January Google Chief Financial Officer, Ruth Porat said, “Data is more like sunlight than oil …. it is like sunshine, we keep using it, it keeps regenerating”. It looks like that the attempt was to bring the wholesomeness of a bright sunny day into the business of data.
The debate has been brought home with the release of the draft report by the Committee of Experts on Non-Personal Data Governance Framework. It is a knowledgeable report that evokes respect, whether one agrees with its recommendations or not. It has brought conceptual clarity to a complex subject.
One of its recommendations viz. ‘Only the raw / factual data pertaining to community data that is collected by a private organization may need to be shared, subject to well-defined grounds and not based on any remuneration’, seeks to make collector of public data such as on traffic or health to share anonymized data freely with others.
It is felt by the committee that making such data public is likely to help start-ups. This recommendation has drawn considerable adverse-comments in the media. One commentator says, “India is increasingly rushing into a licence-permit raj for the data economy.
If accepted in its current form, the report is likely to seriously erode, if not end, India’s competitive advantage in information technology”. Another commentator says, “Requiring businesses to share resources with competitors, like the report does, can eviscerate incentives to invest, innovate, and compete, thereby reducing the quality of products and services available to consumers”.
A lay person is confused as to how he should look at data, like sunlight that should be shared by all or like oil, mandating free sharing of which will ensure that no oil is available to anybody.
Before taking a view in the matter, it will be worthwhile to recall Economics 101. Goods are classified into a two-by-two matrix of being excludable and rivalrous. Private goods like a sandwich are both excludable and rivalrous. A sandwich can be locked in a fridge and if one has eaten it otherscan’t. Goods that are Common Pool Resource, like fish stock in oceans, are non-excludable but rivalrous.
Public Goods are those that are both non-excludable and non-rivalrous e.g. a lighthouse. Lighthouse owner cannot ensure that only paying ships see it nor its use by one ship prevents others from benefiting. The fourth element in the matrix are those goods that are excludable but non-rivalrous, called Club-goods like satellite television signal. It does not matter how many people use it, but the transmitter can ensure that only paying users are allowed to watch the show.
Data clearly belongs to the last category. It will be a great help if metaphors like oil or sunlight are avoided to help people see things as they are.
It might not be possible in this short piece to go into the merits of this recommendation in detail. Yet it is not difficult to see the underlying logic that sharing of anonymized community data will avoid fragmentation. Coupled with the fact that usually data is a by-product and usually nobody invests in data collection for its own sake, it is difficult to deny that Governments may legitimately convert community data into a public good.
Contributed by: Prashant Saran, Senior Consultant;
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