Contact Us Stay Connected Request a Briefing

Necessity and Invention: It’s (Almost) All About the Data

Susan Etlinger
Screen collage showing business images


It’s so easy to get lost in data. It’s everywhere; from the moment we wake up in the morning and check our phones, to the apps we open and use, the websites and places we visit, the transactions and tweets and Facebook posts we write, emails we send, searches we do. Everywhere we go, science tells us, we leave a little bit of our microbiome (the microbial communities that live on and around our bodies) and, increasingly, a digital “microbiome” as well; the collection of data that we generate as we live our daily lives.

As I think about these ideas—a human and data signature!—I feel a simultaneous sense of wonder and unease. I feel wonder at the immense complexity of our existence, and at the way the human body masks that complexity with apparent simplicity. To me, that seems like a blueprint for how we should think about data: complexity masked in simplicity.

The problem is, sometimes that simplicity can lead us astray. I talked about some of that unease, and some of the challenges of “big” and “little” data, in my TED@IBM talk last year, and in a companion piece published shortly after entitled “What do we do with all this big data?”

The challenges are twofold: how do we extract insight from data, while preserving (and nurturing) the trust of the people we serve? I will tell you that as I sat in the audience at TED@IBM this year(along with some of the other TED speakers from last year—Kare Anderson, Bryan Kramer, Erick Brethenoux, Tan Le and others), I felt a sense of relief. Part of that relief, some of us joked, was not being onstage this year (it is a very intense experience), but the major part was that the research we were hearing about was simultaneously ground breaking and deeply principled.

The theme this year was “Necessity and Invention,” and here are just a few of the topics presented:

  • Jeannette Garcia spoke about her research into plastic: not just “recycling” it, but finding ways to return it to its original elements.
  • Kala Fleming is developing digital aquifers that use data to more effectively use water in North Africa, and, we Californians hope, other places as well.
  • Chieko Asakawa, who is blind, is developing augmented reality technology to help people with low or no vision to navigate the world around them more independently.
  • Eric Mibuari spoke about how mobile and social data can be used to bring payment systems, and more importantly financial inclusion, to individuals and small business owners in Kenya.
  • Robert Prill spoke about microbes, and how understanding their unique signatures can help us improve food safety.

All of these examples, and so many others that day, show us how data can be used to improve the daily lives of the billions of people on our planet. At the same time, it can also reveal new business models and inventions that would have been unthinkable even a decade ago: a stock market for sneakers? Context-aware privacy technology? Computers with a sense of humor?

What energizes and comforts me as I think about all the invention around us is that the relative cheapness of processing and the availability of data has made it possible for so many people to radically rethink our world. And as great power confers great responsibility, it also requires that we think deeply and with integrity about how we use data, how we collect it and process it, and whether those practices engender the trust of those we interact with.

I explored this in a research report called The Trust Imperative: A Framework for Ethical Data Use earlier this year, and it is one of the main issues on my mind these days. As predictive analytics, virtual reality and artificial intelligence move into the mainstream, the implications (and capabilities) of data will become even more urgent and complex.

And there you have yet another aspect of necessity and invention: the need to think about how we mine, refine and use data—one of the most critical raw materials of our digital age.