Is data really new oil?

In a recent chat with Renée Gallant from She Loves Data and Felipe Flores from Data Futurology we were talking about data and the fact that so many folks have been saying that data is the new oil (here is a link to the podcast if you’re interested SL-Ep10: Career Aspirations Post Pandemic: What every hiring manager needs to know – YouTube).

Where did this saying come from?

This saying about data being the new oil probably comes from a 2017 article in the Economist that was about regulating the data economy. Regulation of data does remain an extremely valid point:

“A century ago, the resource in question was oil. Now similar concerns are being raised by the giants that deal in data, the oil of the digital era.”

Regulating the internet giants – The world’s most valuable resource is no longer oil, but data | Leaders | The Economist

In the past I used this analogy of data being the new oil in several presentations in the context of showing people that there was an awful lot of it to manage. But that was before I thought about it.

Data is the ultimate resource – it keeps growing, and there seems to be little that we can do to stop its proliferation. Now I think that data is an endless resource that is only limited by our storage and analytics capabilities, and by our appetite for regulation.

Kate Carruthers, Dec 2020

The problem with data

The problem with data is that it is so easy to create and store that this is often done without any thought as to whether or not it is appropriate thing to do. Anyone with an internet connection and some basic skills can start to collect and store data online. And there are no rules for how they ought to store their data – which explains why so many data breaches are really just some random person stored personal data in an unsecured S3 bucket. That is no, special expertise was required to access the data, just the ability to type into a search engine.

Further, often the safety of the stored data does not seem to be top of mind – remember the Equifax data breach? This organisation had tremendous amounts of personal information and could not be bothered to patch against known vulnerabilities.

It seems as if we have not established a philosophy of data and that our only model for understanding data and rights in respect of data is that of property. And, if we accept this then we must also accept that our model for privacy, which is based on informed and explicit consent, is also not quite ready for the world where data about us is so readily captured, stored, and shared – often without our explicit consent.

It seems that we have a lot more thinking to do about data, privacy, and security. But one thing that is clear is that data will continue to proliferate, and until we sort out these things data, its proliferation, and its safe storage and usage is going to remain problematic.

Author: Kate Carruthers

Kate Carruthers is Chief Data & Insights Officer for UNSW Sydney, and is also an Adjunct Senior Lecturer in the School of Computer Science & Engineering. She is certified in information security and is currently undertaking postgraduate studies terrorism and security. Kate has extensive experience in senior roles in ICT, marketing, data and digital; and is a member of the NSW Government’s Data Analytics Centre Advisory Board. Kate is currently working at the intersection of data analytics, AI, ML, privacy, cyber security, and data protection.