A duty to data: the importance of responsibility in the age of information

Wednesday 14 September 2016 by Andrew Wolfe

Data-driven communication is all the rage. And it should be. Information has always been important for marketing and advertising efforts, and in the era of big data, a solid grasp of the information generated by everything from website visits to social media activity can expand a brand’s reach and increase revenue.

Growing competition makes it difficult for brands to attract attention, which pushes marketers to search for new ways to reach customers through customization and personalization. Data is essential to this.

The importance of data can be seen in who’s buying it. Companies across many industries are moving to add data to their infrastructures – from advertising agencies to technology pioneers and service providers to cognitive leaders.

Dentsu Aegis Network’s acquisitions of data giant Merkle and digital analytics firm Cardinal Path are two recent examples of the agency’s desire to become a “100% digital economy business by 2020.” Many commentators assert that Apple bought media data startup Semetric to help it super-charge its music streaming service and learn more about its users. The numbers back up this assertion, with 15 million paid subscribers as of June – an increase of 4 million paid users since February 2016. And earlier this year, cognitive leader and innovator IBM purchased Truven Health Analytics, making Truven its fourth acquisition of firms holding health data since launching IBM Watson Health in April 2015. It seems obvious that cognitive technologies are only as good as the data they assimilate and learn from.


“Data is becoming increasingly essential to modern marketing, allowing brands and marketers to better understand their target audiences and more effectively reach them. But the challenge is that marketers haven’t quite connected the dots between tracking data and then applying it.”David Kirkpatrick

As with any project, doing your homework is a vital place to start in marketing, but applying what you learn is just as important. You can have access to the best data in the world, but if you use it poorly or don’t understand it clearly, what you build with it will fail to engage users and ultimately fall short of whatever goal you’re trying to achieve. And using poor data inevitably leads to poor results.

Examples of poor implementation of good data, use of unqualified data and just plain use of bad data abound – these seven examples range from outing a teen girl’s pregnancy to inaccurate reporting by a news agency.

The failure of Google Flu Trends and Ebola predictions by the World Health Organization and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are two examples of blind reliance on big data and a failure “to account for changing conditions on the ground.” Even with the best data available, businesses must remain mindful of the conditions that affect that data.

Looking forward

All this talk about data brings me to one of my favorite topics – the possibilities in our universe – and the potential of the data generated within that field. According to The Extrasolar Planets Encyclopaedia, as of 12 September 2016 we’ve discovered 3,527 planets in 2,644 planetary systems, 595 of which are multiple-planet systems. A planet has even been found in the “habitable” zone around Proxima Centauri – the nearest star to our solar system. And we’ve only just begun to seriously look for extrasolar worlds. I think we’ll find there are worlds orbiting most stars in the universe.

How many of those worlds can sustain life? And of those, how many can sustain life as we know it? I think life is ubiquitous, but what if life-sustaining worlds like the Earth – or even unlike the Earth – are rare in the universe? How will that data influence the way we live? Will it move us to take better care of our planet and the plants, animals and people that need a healthy world to thrive and grow? How we utilize information about our world and the universe around us could someday decide our fate as a species.

I’m reminded of my favorite song lyric: “Wondrous is our great blue ship. That sails around the mighty sun. And joy to everyone that rides along!” Take a moment to look at the wonderful world around you. Take in the lovely colors of the sky. Hear the amazing sounds of nature. See the beauty of wildlife, woods, fields, mountains and water – my favorite is the Great Lakes. Gaze into the night sky. And wonder about the possibilities. Then realize just how precious our world really is.

Every day we take in information about the world around us – from seeing people toss trash out their car windows or running over animals in the roadway to news stories about pollution, poverty, endangered species and natural and manmade disasters. Change starts with individuals. How can you make the world a better place? A joyful place? How can corporations and research facilities use all the data available to them to help safeguard and improve the future of this planet? Data offers ample opportunities for those that truly understand and utilize it – and we all have a duty to use it in the right way.

Andrew has left The Frameworks.


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