The shape of data: from lines to pyramids


The popular shape of data is a line. We see it going up and down, in stock market graphs and unemployment figures respectively (though admittedly these days it’s often the reverse). 

But data actually has another, more sinister shape; a pyramid. At the top of the pyramid, as ever, are the pharaohs. The ones who spotted data’s potential early on and built the systems that it accumulates within, capitalising on the labour of others to reach the summit. And although some of these pharaonic billionaires are focused on sharing their wealth with society, in most instances the inequality gap yawns ever wider

In the middle of the pyramid are those mining the data - buying shares in data companies, selling the data that their customers generate, or exploiting their own. New tools are proliferating to aid this, from data exchanges to smart clothes that encourage users to take control of and sell on their own data, or even donate it to charities. But most of these tools rely on a level of access to the data conversation, both in terms of awareness and of the financial means to speculate, which is out of reach for many.

Meanwhile the majority of us at the bottom of the pyramid give away or sell our data for a fraction of its value. British tabloid The Sun has run multiple stories on the benefits of selling purchase receipts, positioning them as meaningless old scraps of paper that readers can benefit from at no personal cost. There’s little explanation of the fact that the data from these receipts is sold on to marketing companies, and is anything but meaningless. 

‘Data is the new oil’ and ‘increasing inequality’ are two commonly heard phrases, but they’re not placed together often enough. If we can learn from the history and mistakes made by the oil industry instead of repeating them, our society could be a more balanced and sustainable place in the future.

Firstly, we need a basic level of education around data that means people are making truly informed choices about what they do with theirs – whether that involves protecting it or selling it.

We could also learn from some of the fairer ways of sharing oil profits; in 1976, the Alaskan government set up a sovereign wealth fund to share the benefits from their oil-rich state, decreeing that the lands’ mineral rights belonged to all citizens, and so should the profits.

Currently, most governments give away the (anonymised) data they generate about their citizens, making it freely available for researchers, marketers and businesses to download. There’s an argument that this has societal benefits – innovation, mapping, improved services etc. But could there be an alternative? Monetising this data and setting up sovereign wealth funds for the proceeds – that can be shared out fairly among society – could be a step towards a more equal future. 

Lydia Crudge, Flamingo