What does it mean to be the 'number one data destination'? Here are four possible scenarios
The future of data, geopolitics and competitive deregulation.
With the substantial and ongoing shifts in both capitalism and geopolitics, how governments seek to position themselves within the wider data economy will become an ever more pressing concern. Given this connectedness and shared competition, analysing individual national data strategies can potentially reveal something of the wider picture that is emerging1.
With the UK Government’s release of Data: A New Direction and the earlier National Data Strategy a sketchy plan, of sorts, is starting to form. Amongst this patchy vision there is one particularly disconcerting claim. The centrepiece of this emerging strategy is a list of the UK’s ‘10 Tech Priorities’. The second of these priorities suggests that ‘by removing barriers to responsible data sharing and use, we aim to become the world’s number one data destination’.
The question this poses is what it might mean to be the number one ‘data destination’ and what consequences this aim will lead to. We might imagine four possible scenarios.
Scenario 1: The UK as a data mine
Data mining or harvesting is, of course, central to the functioning of capitalism. The value of data has come to underpin capitalist structures and certain types of potential value are projected onto those data. This value is illustrated by Facebook achieving $9bn profits in the last quarter. Rendering data accessible whilst also reducing the barriers to its use is often presented as the means for generating new value. The temptation here is to loosen the regulations to such an extent that ever greater levels of untapped value are released. A type of competitive deregulation could yet emerge in which countries aim to have the most relaxed regulatory frameworks.
This approach immediately puts the generation of economic value in tension with what is understood to be acceptable levels of privacy. Shifting senses of the acceptability of data availability and pushing back notions of privacy will be a key component to any such changes. Within such a logic of competition, the State might seek to make its population’s data more accessible than others, thus giving them the edge in the data economy. The world’s number one data destination, to use the government’s terminology, is likely to seek to make its data ever more harvestable and usable in comparison to others. The push towards loosening the regulations would effectively be based on aiming to be the premier data mine. States might well then compete to have the loosest data regulations so as to be able to promise the greatest levels of value.
Scenario 2: The UK as a data warehouse
Amassing data is always likely to create growing storage problems. Another alternative would be for the leading data destination to aim to provide solutions to those storage problems - or to promote spaces for the private sector to do so. Data storage is likely to increasingly become a problem. Data and cloud computing have actual material limits. The pressing issues of data security, the space and equipment required for data centres to be built and maintained and the unwanted environmental impact of managing all that heat are impassable issues.
The top data destination might seek to turn itself into a vast data warehouse able to hold and securely store data from outside of its territories. It might also offer services for the equally challenging job of cleaning and wrangling those data. The impact of these services may be minimal, but the overall requirements would be for large capacity data centres to be built and for the expansion of the vast cooling systems and cable infrastructures that support them. However, immaterial we imagine data to be, this move would create significant ecological and environmental questions wherever the growing infrastructure ends up being built (and so is a much broader problem that is yet to be faced).
Scenario 3: The UK as a data broker
The mobility of data is a key part of their value. With these movements, the fragmentation and variegation of data regulation will create a complex global picture. The movement of data across borders may yet, as part of wider geopolitical forces, become a growing area of contention. The foremost data destination might well seek to manage and handle the movement of data across borders and across different regulatory regimes. In this sense, a State might seek to develop itself as a brokerage, handling the global flows of data by becoming a regulatory hub for such movements and smoothing the transition of data between different regulatory regimes. On the surface this may seem an unproblematic direction, but then we would need to consider how those data might be sensitive, or how the movement between regulatory regimes may create moral questions or ethical problems. It may also mean that such a role would be to facilitate the use of data in ways that evade privacy concerns or that lead to outcomes that may be undesirable or even harmful.
Scenario 4: The UK as a data laboratory
There is one further scenario, one that is more about analysis rather than the data themselves. The establishment of variegated regulatory regimes might mean that the regimes that allow for extensive data accessibility and analytics may become spaces of experimentation. Where data is accessible and analytics are in place, there is the potential for those spaces to be used to generate insights and to try out interventions that can then be applied elsewhere.
Models based upon the available data might then be applied in places where regulatory regimes are tighter and data is much less accessible. In this imagined outcome, places with lower barriers to data access and analysis would become a type of data laboratory, from which the findings of the analytics would be extracted in order to then be applied in other places. The unbalancing of data regulation is likely to create places in which populations are more deeply analysed and, potentially, where greater levels of intervention are experienced. The outcomes of which may then be applied in other settings even where data itself is not being used. In this scenario one place or population would become a data proxy for another.
Admittedly, I’ve outlined four rather extreme versions of what it might mean to be the leading data destination and what such a logic might lead to. The most likely outcome is some combination of these four scenarios.
Picturing potential future scenarios is useful for challenging the central logic of developing governmental strategies. These scenarios may seem far-fetched, and they are unlikely to be developed in as pure a form as I’ve imagined here, but this does not mean that these futures won’t start to become realities if left unchecked. In a global data economy it is likely that nations will be seeking to position themselves and to compete on these types of fronts - a type of data nationalism.
Imagining where government strategies might be taking us pushes us to question the very values that are driving those strategies in the first place.
I previously explored the details of the broader UK data strategy and the problem at the centre of it. In this article I pick upon on the particular aim to turn to the UK into a ‘data destination’ that was mentioned in that earlier article.