What does data utopia look like?

Once only the remit of cybersecurity and advertising, the fractious public attitude towards data is clear, with it even forming the basis to storylines in hit shows such as BBC’s Years and Years and Killing Eve. But how much should these ideas around data remain solely the domain of futuristic fiction? We take a closer look at what a data utopia might look like.


Perhaps the most obvious starting point when talking about huge, disparate data sets and data use for good is healthcare. A recent study by EY estimated that NHS data is worth £9.6bn/year; no surprise when you consider the enormous numbers of patients that pass through the NHS doors every day. However, deriving worth from these disjointed data lakes is another matter altogether.

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Ultimately, the value comes in the ability to harness the data sets on each patient to deliver personalised treatment plans and medicine. Alternatively, the potential diagnostic capabilities are endless – imagine if every genomic profile were cross-referenced with primary and secondary care patient records; the results could genuinely be lifechanging as patterns are quickly identified and fed back to medical teams across the nation. Of course, all of this remains firmly in the realm of the hypothetical. Fragmentation of data is a real issue in the NHS – one that will be no mean feat to overcome.


More firmly established ground, the value of data in advertising has widely been recognised throughout adland. Better quality data sets, when properly controlled, have enormous potential to deliver highly targeted, relevant advertising. Life-changing? Maybe not, but certainly industry-changing. As consumers are increasingly expecting more from their advertising, only the most creative, best targeted advertising will win out, and data is a fundamental part of this.

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A wealth of data is held by local authorities. Proper analysis could lead to improved service to UK citizens in everything from better traffic systems to improved waste collection. A recent Guardian report even highlighted the potential for the vast quantity of data held by local authorities to help construct computer models with the potential to predict child abuse and intervene before it happens.

So with the benefits this clear, why has data not already changed the world?

Lack of skills, trust and transparency

We have the technology needed to keep pace with the enormous data sets but very few organisations have the in-house capabilities necessary to harness the data and ensure it’s properly controlled. In fact, research shows that almost half of CMOs admit they don’t have the skills in-house to handle data efficiently. And building a relationship with the consumer, with unmanaged, incorrectly activated data, will only cause audiences to drift away.

This brings us on to the question of trust. While data breaches and political scandals are bringing data control to the forefront of the national agenda, it’s for the wrong reasons. Even the latest update from Google regarding political advertising had a negative spin in the media. Under Google’s new rules, ads that refer to candidates, political parties or ballot measures will be barred from using powerful tools that combine data sources and target individual users, yet when this ‘step forward’ was reported, many implied this move was too little too late.

It’s our job as data experts to help create a next-generation of best practices through education. With the right training and skills in place, as well as a greater public understanding of how it’s used, the perception of data, particularly how it is used in the advertising space, will improve.

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Transparency and trust go hand in hand; part of the importance of rebuilding trust, lies within businesses being more transparent with their processes. And whilst associations such as the IAB are pushing for change, it’s clear that something bigger needs to be done in the management of data. Businesses need to strive towards a first-party data driven future, where customer trust is central to their values.

While it’s easy to get carried away by the scaremongering, it’s important to remember that we cannot escape data; It’s now part of our digital DNA, and properly controlled data has the potential for great things. That said, as the value of data becomes increasingly recognised amongst business leaders and consumers alike, this leaves the door open for a whole new world – that of data ethics. Data, when harnessed efficiently and morally, really can change the world for the better.

Written by Ian James, CEO and co-founder of Silver Bullet.

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