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The future of data: What will it look like in 500 years?

It’s easy to imagine what the world might look like in ten or even fifty years time, but what will New Zealand’s biggest sectors look like in 500 years’ time? Thanks to our friends at Tech Futures Lab, we went out to some of New Zealand’s most inspiring business leaders and asked them to imagine a far, far away future. Here’s Figure.NZ founder Lillian Grace on the future of data.

In 500 years, data will have lost the shiny focus it receives today. The data industry will be well established with internationally embedded standards and regulations, common tools, and acceptance of best practice. There will be high expectations from throughout society that things should just work, and working in the data industry will feel more like other areas of traditional infrastructure than as a leading point of innovation. However, the data that flows out of all of this infrastructure will be a beautiful thing to see, richly contributing to all parts of life. Here are five aspects of how I think it will look.

Purpose-driven approaches will underpin data collection. Today, data is often collected as a by-product of a service (swiping your credit card at a supermarket), or in a mass-grab by organisations to collect as much as they can about people and things in case it becomes useful. Once the frenzy settles, I think we will surface to realise that collecting everything just because we can isn’t the best approach. Rather, our systems, the tools we use to collect data and what data we collect will structured around what we are trying to achieve. We will stop asking people for all their attributes so we can tell them how they fit into our organisational frameworks, and we will instead just start asking them things like ‘Do you need help?’, and ‘Is your home overcrowded?’ rather than asserting it on them.

Wide understanding of types of data will make the topic more accessible. Whilst experts currently have a language to describe the world of data, it is not yet normalised and most people assume it’s all one and the same. This limits the input we can get from throughout society to guide the direction of how we want data to play a role in our lives. For example, three main types of data that will be clearly understood and all advancing:

Data for automation: When data is collected to automate action.

Data for mass customisation: Where data is collected so that people can receive tailored services as and when they need them.

Data for listening, understanding and decision making: Where data is collected to advance our knowledge of something we care about.

Communities and groups will own their own stories. Today, we are told stories about ourselves through data collected and interpreted by others in a centralised model. This makes sense in a world where it’s hard for large groups to communicate and coordinate themselves, but in 500 years we will have well established ways for communities and groups to work together and make decisions at more local points. Part of this evolution will see more distributed data collection models. For example, a town could collect data on how it is going and what it needs, and then put it together with other local knowledge to give the data context before sharing and using it to tell stories or for advocacy.

A values-based framework will underpin data use. Digital technology and data are evolving too fast for regulation to keep up today. This means dangerous behaviour, such as widespread manipulation, can be done without clearly breaking laws. To create a safer place, I think we will shift to a values-based framework that regulates how data is used – one that lasts for decades without any need to iterate.

Data will be a single tool in everyone’s toolbelt. Data collection at scale and speed is new to us now, so it gets a lot of attention. But we need to remember it is only one type of input for our thinking, and that many other types of input (such as values, goals, experiences, and feelings) are also valid. In 500 years data literacy will be widespread and normal (in part thanks to Figure.NZ, of course), and it will have been embedded as part of a set of thinking tools and inputs that we use to grow our understanding and frame how we see the world.

One of the biggest benefits from data being established within society in these more being-centred ways, is that we will see a rise in compassion and dignity. When it is done well, data helps us understand ourselves and others better. Without it, we can easily get stuck in a belief bubble that reinforces what we have experienced ourselves is true for others. Data can help us see things clearly, and understand things in a faster and more feasible way than having to experience everything ourselves. The human shifts in our awareness and understanding of others through data is to me, the most exciting thing to come.

About the writer

Lillian Grace is the founder of Figure.NZ, a charity that helps New Zealanders find and access data for free. She recently stepped down to form a new company called Figure Gorup, which will explore what Figure.NZ couldn’t do within its charitable mandate by allowing businesses and individuals to use data in a more meaningful way.

About Tech Futures Lab

Are you looking to be more intentional about your life, career and impact on the world in the context of massive technological, organisational, social and environmental change? The Postgraduate Certificate in Human Potential for the Digital Economy, new from Tech Futures Lab, is designed to help you do exactly that. Registrations now open for our February 2020 intake. Find out more at its website or call +64 (9) 522 2858.

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