Data plays a pivotal role in many avenues of our lives, our economies, and our societies. But what is data? This question is critical yet not easy to answer since data is not just one thing, and it is changing fast as we look to the future.
Economically, data is a factor of production that is as critical to competitiveness in the 21st century as capital and labour were in the 20th century. Scientifically, data is changing the way research is conducted in fields like medicine, chemistry, and others. Internationally, data is transforming areas ranging from international trade and finance to development assistance and the control of epidemics. Data is changing the nature of military and geostrategic conflicts, raising new issues of cybersecurity, impacting the approach to public health, and helping in the fight against climate change.
The rising importance of data has thrown up new challenges ranging from competition policy to privacy to the geostrategic implications of 5G. The importance of understanding and addressing these new challenges has been made more urgent by a growing, popular backlash against some aspects of the digital economy. This ‘techlash’ is perhaps inevitable as every great new tool can be used for both good and bad. Health data can yield new insights for better fitness and to cure disease, but it can also allow an insurance company or employer to discriminate. Data on political preferences helps new candidates compete for public office, but it can also help deliver disinformation. And data can help refugees resettle but can also help regimes retaliate. And there is an increasing sense that only the tip of the iceberg is in view.
Data governance, to realise the benefits of data and reduce the harms, cannot be left only to governments. Users must have a say, with the help of civil society; new technology can provide privacy and security by design; companies can help to generate trust through ethical data handling; while governments take their respective role in setting policy and developing regulations.
The goal of this conference is to boost understanding of what data is and help to develop mindsets and attitudes that are based on technical and economic realities rather than the myths and shallow discussions that so often appear in popular media. It will start with the present, but look forward to the opportunities, and the challenges, that new technologies will bring for the year 2025.