There’s no such thing as data

Technology is full of narratives, but one of the loudest is around something called ‘data’. AI is the future, and it’s all about data, and data is the future, and we should own it and maybe be paid for it, and countries need data strategies and data sovereignty. Data is the new oil!

This is mostly nonsense. There is no such thing as ‘data’, it isn’t worth anything, and it doesn’t really belong to you anyway.

Most obviously, ‘data’ is not one thing, but innumerable different collections of information, each of them specific to a particular application, that aren’t interchangeable. Siemens has wind turbine telemetry and Transport for London has ticket swipes, and you can’t use the turbine telemetry to plan a new bus route. If you gave both sets of data to Google or Tencent, that wouldn’t help them build a better image recognition system.

This might seem trivial put so bluntly, but it points to the uselessness of very common assertions, especially from people outside tech, on the lines of ’China has more data’ or ‘America will have more data’ - more of what data? Meituan delivers 50m restaurant orders a day, and that lets it build a more efficient routing algorithm, but you can’t use that for a missile guidance system. You might not even be able to use it to build restaurant delivery in London. ‘Data’ does not exist as one, single, unified thing, where you can add every row and table of every different kind (Read more...)