In data we trust - balancing data innovation with data protection

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When a friend asked a 19-year old Mark Zuckerberg how he’d managed to get more than 4,000 email addresses from fellow students, he responded: “People just submitted it. I don’t know why. They trust me. Dumb.”

Not a great thing to be quoted saying, especially when news is full of data scare stories with Facebook leading the pack and facing unilateral criticism for releasing personal information to powerful analytical engine Cambridge Analytica.

In the wake of this scandal, it’s likely that Zuckerberg regrets his teenage bravado, but in many ways, that the throwaway comment is so shocking today is reflective of our changing relationship with data. As Facebook continues to respond to this public relations nightmare both consumers and organisations that use consumer data are anxiously waiting to see what the long-term impact of the scandal will be.

So far, there has been a barrage of promises in response – by politicians, especially in Europe, but also by tech executives - who say that they will do their best to tighten up controls over our data and even introduce new laws to punish blatant malpractice. Facebook itself has been contrite, with public apologies from CEO Mark Zuckerberg and most recently the announcement of a bounty program which will reward people who find cases of data abuse on its platforms.   

Beyond the scandals, despite the much documented sense of wariness towards big data applications and the commercial use of personal data by private companies, there are fundamental changes to business processes that come with data use. As executive awareness in the potential power of data has taken hold, businesses have struggled with how best to organise around data - as an activity, a business function and a capability. 

However, what is clear is that we need to come to terms with the fact that big data is here to stay. It’s too intrinsically woven into the fabric of society to go away - it powers healthcare, travel, shopping and even the way we meet and fall in love - it makes the world go around. The onus is firmly on the companies who deal with data to work to build (or rebuild) public trust. They must demonstrate that the data they rely on to do business, is stored, processed and used appropriately. Only then will consumers realise that the good outweighs the bad.

How to get big data right

So how do firms throw off the shackles of the scandals and ensure that they’re meeting the public demands for transparency, responsibility and security when it comes to big data? 

Many would agree that the companies hit by data breaches or scandals have a big PR job to do to mend tarnished reputations. Apologies must be open and chief execs held accountable. One of the biggest jobs to do is far more fundamental than messaging and PR - and is firmly in the back office of a company. Making sure that big data doesn’t become synonymous with big danger is an operation which starts in the data centre.

The building blocks

The data centre sits at the heart of an organisation. You might be forgiven for thinking that the IT department isn't the natural home of innovation and business leadership as it once was, but the big data revolution can only efficiently be delivered from purpose built, highly efficient data centres. When it comes to data applications, responsible innovation is a commitment to balancing the need to deliver compelling, engaging, products and services, with the need to make sure data is stored, processed, managed and used properly. This process starts way away from the headlines or the CEO statements. Getting the data centre strategy right means that companies have an intelligent and scalable asset that enables choice and growth. But get it wrong, and entire businesses are at risk.

We all know that there’s a lot of data out there; according to IBM, 90 percent of the data in the world today has been created in the last two years. This data comes from everywhere: sensors used to gather shopper information, posts to social media sites, digital pictures and videos, purchase transactions and cell phone GPS signals to name just a few. 

What companies want to do with the data is increasingly complex too. Many applications demand real-time or near real-time responses, and information from big data is increasingly used to make vital business decisions. All this means intense pressure on the security, servers, storage and network of any organisation - and the impact of these demands is being felt across the entire technological supply chain. IT departments need to deploy more forward-looking capacity management to be able to proactively meet the demands that come with processing, storing and analysing machine generated data. Indeed, it's no exaggeration to say that the data centre strategy could be crucial to big data’s ultimate success or failure.

To be successful, companies need to strike a precarious balance between innovation and data protection. At one end of the spectrum, there is distrust of the use of data beyond limited, specifically identified purposes. At the other end, the recognition that data is a valuable asset suggests that its more widespread use could empower innovation and economic opportunity. This is a complex argument, which isn’t likely to be categorically solved anytime soon. But whichever side of the fence you fall on, there is a duty for companies who work with data to manage it appropriately. It is imperative that companies have an infrastructure that anticipates growth in data volumes and expansion of data types as well as developing an institutional culture that fundamentally understands the importance of big data. Personnel at every level must work with a mindset that ensures the entry of complete, accurate and uniform data - essentially good data “hygiene”.

Good data hygiene extends to the organisation of data too, encompassing well-defined schemas, an organised data architecture and more. This approach allows companies to perform analytics faster, ensuring the data they’re working with is accurate, current and used appropriately. But of course, data storage, processing and maintenance can be expensive.

The big security challenges

For even the biggest organisations, the cost of having (and maintaining) a wholly owned data centre can be prohibitively high. By choosing colocation, companies are effectively achieving the best of both worlds; renting a small slice of the best uninterruptible power and grid supply, with backup generators, super-efficient cooling, 24/7 security and resilient path multi-fibre connectivity that money can buy that has direct access to public cloud platforms to provide the full array of IT infrastructure - all for a fraction of the cost of buying and implementing them themselves.

Perhaps most crucially, the ‘buy’ option when it comes to data centre strategy addresses reliability and security concerns. These concerns mean that a wholesale move to standard, cloud – where security may not be as advanced –  isn’t an option. Instead the savviest organisations are quickly recognising that deploying a hybrid cloud strategy, within a shared environment means that IT can more easily expand and grow, without compromising security or performance. 

Of course, colocation or managed services can help to deal with disaster recovery needs. There’s a growing recognition and acceptance that, wherever your data resides, sooner or later it will be compromised, so it’s important to know how to the inevitable rather than to try and defend the impossible. When you buy a service from an expert, it’s their business to get you up and running again quickly.

Now is a crucial point in the history of big data and there’s scope to get it very right, or very wrong. Data isn't a demon - but we need to be mindful of the potential for corruption and risk, as well as the significant benefits. Proper infrastructure and good data management can only help to control the bad and make the good better.

We are only just at the very beginning of this data revolution - we need data in our business and personal lives. But consumer demand drives everything and big data is no different. As the public grows more wary of data breaches, the pressure will (and already has) come to bear on the business community to pay more attention to securing, storing and using data in the right way. Countermeasures that used to be optional are now becoming standard and are putting increased pressure is being put on company’s IT systems and processes. It’s in the data centre where companies can take firm control - avoid the scandals and make sure that innovation is done right.

Darren Watkins, Managing Director for VIRTUS Data Centres 

Image Credit: VIRTUS Data Centres