In a series of posts related to the World Economic Forum’s Rethinking Personal Data: Strengthening Trust report, Scott L. David of K&L Gates and one of the core members of the Rethinking Personal Data working group discusses the importance of context and data leverage in making sense of the data complexity facing us. You can download the report and see related videos, podcasts and other materials on our Rethinking Personal Data Page after 16 May.

Mastering the Art of Data Complexity

In 2013, we will produce the same amount of data every 10 minutes as was produced in the last 5,000 years before 2003. This exponentially expanding quantity is matched by increasingly complex systems to collect, transfer and process data.

How do we harness the energy of this growth in “data complexity?” There are three stages to dealing with this complexity: denial, engagement and embrace

Denial: Complexity as a Problem

The problem of complexity is experienced by everyone online. We call it by such names as “security”, “privacy” and “liability management”, but they all result from complexity. Part of our challenge is perspective. Viewed in the right context, data can become valuable information. Without context, however, data appears meaningless and without value.

Take for example French post-impressionist painter Georges Seurat’s A Sunday Afternoon. From up close, you see complexity without meaning. Step back and simplicity emerges. All that changed was perspective, or in other words context.

Engagement: Complexity as a Solution

In a hyperconnected world, we have eliminated barriers. Data can be copied infinitely and transferred globally; it can be used by multiple parties at the same time. Anyone can now use and combine data and turn it into “information” in a given context that suits them.

This offers us the glimpse of a solution – data leverage. Each additional use of data creates ever more information for the user, which increases the quantity and value of this resource for all. But, unlocking this value requires effective systems that allow for the co-management of data rights based on context that people can trust and see as being reliable, predictable and fair. If a person doesn’t trust the banking system, they will keep their money under the mattress; if they don’t trust data systems, they will not share data. And this reduces the value for all.

Embrace: Complexity as Opportunity

Data leverage can also lead to the creation of entirely new value – the engine for new markets and sources of growth. The genius of social networks and other online systems is that they structure data so that it can be observed, combined and used by multiple parties, bringing together data that was once locked in its own silo silos (health data in its own silo, financial data in its own silo, web browsing data in its own silo).

Creating mechanisms that allow data to connect and flow across while respecting different use, security and privacy expectations can generate entirely new value. The challenge is to create ways of establishing rights and permissions for use that better match evolving multistakeholder expectations of how this valuable data will be used.

The World Economic Forum has been bringing different stakeholders together to discuss how to create trusted ways of allowing data to flow. Central to those efforts is a shift in thinking from data complexity as a problem to data as a solution and opportunity. The forthcoming report Rethinking Personal Data: Strengthening Trust is an important step forward in that process.

Scott L. David, Partner (OIX Legal Counsel), K&L Gates, USA; Member of the World Economic Forum Global Agenda Council on Information & Communication Technologies; Working Group, Rethinking Personal Data Project; Legal Adviser, Open Identity Exchange