Het meest recente rapport van het World Economic Forum — Unlocking the Value of Personal Data — is het lezen zeker waard, niet in het minst dankzij het pleidooi voor respect voor context van persoonlijke informatie. Blijkbaar zijn we, vooral als informatie over onszelf, mensen, gaat, bezorgd over de kwaliteit van het gebruik van informatie. Die kwaliteit is laag als het gebruik de informatiecontext niet respecteert. Maar, het rapport schraapt nog maar aan de randen van dit veel verdergaande inzicht. Leest u mijn verdere verslag van het rapport in het Engels.
The latest report of the World Economic Forum — Unlocking the Value of Personal Data — is a great read, considering its pledge for respect for context of personal data. Apparently, it is where data comes close to our ourselves, humans, that we start to worry about the quality of its use. And, data is poorly used when that use doesn’t respect context. Yet, in my opinion the report doesn’t grasp the implications of this insight quite sufficiently.
First of all, rather than positioning context as the key determinant of meaning of data, it seems to position context only as a restriction to the use of data, for instance where it defines context as the “description of the conditions of use.” This negative definition of context may turn respect for context into a moral burden rather than an opportunity for creating more appropriate value from data than ever before, for all stakeholders, with the subject itself in front.
Saying that context matters is true but euphemistic. Rather, saying that context is king is not blowing it out of proportion. Context drives meaning. If the context of any piece of data is unknown, its meaning is unknown. How valuable would that be for the user? If data is used unaware of its context, (big) data will turn into (big) lies. Context-awareness is not merely a moral issue, it is a semantic issue to start with.
Second, I am quite sure that it will not help to shift attention from the point of collection to the point of usage. This is because, even when the value of data lies in its use, its context is first of all determined by its history, not by its future. The report states that “data by itself” is neutral, but this cannot hold, since data “by itself” is meaningless and therefore no data. If it is to mean anything, data drags its history along with it, and the intentions of those that contributed to that history. The context of usage should sufficiently match that context of provision. In order to verify this sufficient match, context should be made explicit. So, it’s not about use only, it’s about the match between provision and use. Both. It’s about communication.
Third, context-sensitivity is key to all data, not to personal data alone. If only personal data were to require additional attention to context, apart from other data, this would lower its chances for a positive business case. By the way, where does personal data end and other data start? There really is no natural, or even practical barrier between these.
Fourth, in its choice of words, the report seems to assign the context issue a particular complexity, judging from words such as “shades of grey”, “complexity”, “difficult to implement”. In fact, it doesn’t have to be that difficult. The key is to move away from “data” as the core of our interest, and shift to meaning and value. Data is just a format for such meaning.
The complexity involved is not caused by a spoilsport called context, we created it ourselves by starting off from data. If we accept that electronic data is used for real-world purposes, why then haven’t we moved yet from identifying “syntax errors” to identifying “semantic errors”? Context-sensitivity can be managed, modelled, and implemented in precise and efficient ways, paralleling the ways we have always worked with data. If only we would take it seriously.
The report was a great read for me, because it is so far one of the few that puts forward the context issue so pressingly. I hope you forgive me for grasping the opportunity to make my point and push it even further. I am eager to know what you think.