SOCIETY | Sep 29, 2016

Opportunities and challenges in the use of data and information

How data and information can represent an opportunity for Companies, Administrations, Society?

Opportunities

What opportunities are created by this extraordinary availability of information? How can these data that we continually create be exploited and enhanced? What benefits can we offer to businesses, citizens and civil society in general?

Within the individual business

A first level of reasoning has to do with the use of data and information to improve and even revolutionize the operations of an individual business. This can take place at various levels:

  1. Through the intelligent use of data and information, it is possible to develop new generations of products able to adapt or otherwise behave in a “smart” way, depending on the context and the user’s choices. This is the case, for example, of complex and expensive products such as the most modern cars or much more simple and economical objects such as home controllers (for example Nest).
  2. Intelligent objects and systems enable higher value-added services. This is the case, for example, of car insurance which has been revolutionized by the advent of the “black box” mounted in vehicles; this is able, on the one hand, to intervene in case of emergencies and, on the other, to monitor the user’s behavior and driving habits and consequently adjust costs and coverage.
  3. Data and information can ultimately be used to improve business processes. Just think, for example, of the monitoring and predictive control systems that can be used today in the management of complex plants and infrastructures, such as power distribution networks or high-speed railway lines.

All this is already happening, it is not just a dream or ambition. Businesses are changing and they will continue to change even more as a result of the influence that these huge amounts of information and data inevitably have on all areas and sectors of every modern company.

Among businesses

The exchange and sharing of information will also change the way of relating among integrated service development businesses. For example, the E015 digital ecosystem created for Expo 2015 makes it possible to develop new applications and services that take advantage of different sources and information sources produced by a multitude of public and private entities. At the same time, the cases of companies which operate in districts or industrial chains, and use digital technology to provide integrated supply chain services and greater added value, are becoming increasingly significant. More generally, the sharing and use of information and data become the enabling mechanism for the development of smart cities and smart communities.

Another interesting area is the development of advanced services for businesses and consumers that rely on the integration of information sources from a variety of businesses. Interesting in this respect are the cases of Weve in the United Kingdom and Ezakus in France, companies that take advantage of a variety of information sources from various companies to provide advanced services for advertising and CRM.

In public administrations

Public administrations hold a wealth of information on citizens, businesses, territory and, in general, all areas of the social, economic and cultural life of a nation. These data can be used both for radically improving the functioning of the administrations themselves and for providing information and advanced services to the public, citizens and businesses.

For citizens and society in general

In general, individual citizens and different cultural and social entities can use data and information to intervene in all areas of the economic and social life of a country. There is no limit to the possible fields of application: from the voluntary sector and public services to new services for assistance and social promotion.

Challenges

The extraordinary amount of information and data that the development of digital technologies makes available is certainly a great growth opportunity for all areas of our society. However, there is no doubt that this pervasive, widespread and continuous capacity for monitoring and analyzing the behavior of individuals and entire communities can also be a challenge and a risk that should in no way be understated or underestimated. Also, it is not enough just to have the “raw data” to enable and field advanced services with higher added value. In itself, a datum  is useless if it is not processed and interpreted. For these reasons, alongside the development of new products and services that enhance the availability and creation of these huge amounts of information, actions must also be planned that permanently permit study and analysis of the critical issues and challenges that we face.

Ownership of the datum

The first and most pressing issue is that of ownership of the datum. At first glance, it would seem intuitive enough that this ownership should remain in the hands of the person who generated or characterized it. However, there are many cases where this ownership appears not to be not so clearly determined, whether for operational reasons or for reasons of public interest. For example, who is the owner of the datum related to the transit of a private car on a magnetic loop (placed under the road surface) or under a camera that detects traffic on the stretch of city road? The citizen could be traced and thus claim ownership of that datum. At the same time, it is a question of information that has considerable significance both for security reasons (single datum) and for the management of road infrastructures (aggregated data). There is therefore no doubt that this topic is certainly a critical element that needs to be further studied and analyzed.

Privacy

The privacy of information is another particularly critical and burning issue. What are the possible areas for dissemination and use of a datum, including in relation to its ownership? With which constraints and under which conditions and qualifications can information be used for offering commercial services? There is no doubt that the development of proliferation systems and digital advertising depend decisively on existing or future rules and regulations in the field of privacy.

Glossaries and ontologies

In order for information and data to be able to be used effectively, there is a need for instruments that make it possible to both compare and interpret them. In other words, it is necessary to develop interpretative models and schemes that give shared meaning and sense to the information and data that are collected. This challenge underlies research and innovation in the field of information glossaries, ontology and semantics. Without such decisive contributions, any information source loses meaning and usefulness because the interpretive frameworks on the basis of which to enhance and use them are lacking.

The interpretation of knowledge

The availability of data does not necessarily correspond to either having information or supporting really effective decision-making models or applications. The datum must be studied, interpreted and processed in order to extract useful and applicable knowledge in the specific application context.

This requires a multidisciplinary mix of IT techniques, mathematical and statistical models, and domain knowledge. It is only through the virtuous encounter of these three disciplines that it becomes possible to give meaning and value to data that might otherwise be totally useless or insignificant.

Cooperation and interoperability

Data and information should be able to be exchanged among different players. This is a critical and important theme especially (but not only) in the field of public administrations: why should a citizen have to communicate the same information to two different administrations? Why do administrations not communicate and exchange information directly? It is a problem, in fact, of interoperability and interaction among different players. This theme extends and completes what has been discussed about semantics, ontology and data glossaries, by introducing precisely the problem of interoperability among independent IT systems.

Business models

Finally, a last but certainly not less important challenge concerns the economic models through which to support investment, and to exploit and enhance data and information. Obviously, advertising and its related processes constitute the hub around which most of the business models available today revolve. Certainly, it is necessary to understand that there may be other forms for constructing business models that enable development of the entire ecosystem of knowledge and ensure the enhancement of the various forms of data and information made available through the development of digital technologies.

Alfonso Fuggetta