Watching Euronews I came across an Interview with Margrethe Vestager, the Executive Vice President of the European Commission for A Europe Fit for the Digital Age. One of her remarks struck me. She said ‘data is a renewable resource’, which made me wonder if this were true. A quick search on Google (an apparently unending source of data) soon revealed that others have wondered exactly the same thing. A post by Binge Thinker in 2018 tested this against the definition of a renewable resource as a resource that “that can be totally replaced or is always available naturally, or that is practically inexhaustible.” This all depends on what one considers to be available naturally. Data are (yes, data are plural, Ms Vesteger) difficult to consider as a natural phenomenon, since the concept of data is a human conception.
The growth of data actually comes from our framing of the concept of data. Data became much more plentiful with the invention of the computer and the advent of the Internet, until we realised that we now have ‘big data’ – the overwhelming amount of information produced by human activity and increasingly by machines and the Internet of Things. It might seem that big data have emerged magically and multiply without effort. But in fact, all of this depends on our interpretation of what can be interpreted as data. The fact that we now have smartphones means that we are generating data continuously – information about where we are, who we are with, what we are doing, and so on. The important thing is that these data have a context – we can link the information produced to people, places and actions. Without the context, the data are a meaningless stream of ones and zeros.
This underlines the important point that to be considered a resource at all, data have to be meaningful. So we might have a tremendous supply of data, but to make use of it we have to understand what it means, and to be able to harness it by asking the right questions of the data. This underlines the heavy dependence of data on human thought. This is very different from other renewable energy sources, such as solar energy. Solar energy exists without our intervention – although we can make more use of it by putting solar panels on our roof. Arguably, data are not natural, nor are they inexhaustible. If we take away the context, the data lose their meaning and value as a resource. So the key to using data effectively lies not in having lots of data, but in our ability to ask the right questions of the data available.