We need to talk about data – and it’s emotional

The importance of building public understanding of the data economy

Jed Mole, VP Marketing, Acxiom

Is it just me, or does it seem that when there’s news about data, it’s rarely good news? Maybe it’s just the way of the world? We know that data, kept safe and used in balance isn’t newsworthy and it’s hardly surprising when there’s anything less than good news, ‘the machine’ rapidly spins up to speak to this topical subject.

I feel I must accept this is how news works. What I do have a problem with is the huge gap between how the public thinks today’s data economy works and how it actually works. It’s in everyone’s interests to close that gap. Frustratingly, the way data is often portrayed has the effect of reducing rather than promoting transparency.

Misconceptions

The rate of digitalisation has been swift. We have been quick to adopt and enjoy the benefits of a data-enabled world. But how many of us, outside this industry, have stopped on the way to consider – or ask – how or why it works? We’re all reliant on so many digital platforms both at work and at home and enjoy the advantages, but we’re arguably overwhelmed with the data world around us. GDPR has raised awareness, but understanding is still low and the knowledge gap is still way too big. Let’s look at an example.

Recently, chatting with a cab driver, he asked what I did. Finding out I work in data-driven marketing, he declared that his laptop had been ‘hacked’. He told me that, despite installing two types of anti-virus software, he was still getting ads. He was clearly irritated and incredulous, thinking he had done the right thing to remove them. I explained that he wasn’t being hacked, it had nothing to do with his anti-virus software working or not – it’s just digital advertising. Once I explained how it works, he was relieved and relaxed that the ads were just reflecting what he had shown interest in.

It’s not all black or white but this example speaks volumes about the true level of understanding.

Emotions are running high

It’s good that people care about data. What isn’t good is fanning the flames of fear. We’ve no choice other than to get better with data. When there are issues, whether acute or chronic, we need to understand and respond, not overreact. It’s not helpful for people to think brands want to know everything from what they said in their last SMS to their bank balance. In my experience, most of what we do is akin to believing you own a Honda – the car you drive in full view of everyone, every day. Recently, we’ve seen fines for big brands being hacked, something every business and everyone needs to guard against. Standards need to continually rise yet hacking and the use of data for marketing are two related, but different things.

Knowledge can overpower fear

In an independent survey we conducted with the DMA, 88% of consumers cited transparency as the key to trust. Consumers want us to be clear about how we are using their data, and when they see the benefits, they’re happy to share. When understanding increases, so does trust.

Of course, we still need an appropriate degree of caution and there are grey areas worthy of debate. For example, if I wear a fitness device, I understand it will track my heart rate, speed and location. What I don’t expect is for it to tell my insurer I’m not exercising as much as before, resulting in a higher premium. However, would I want to share it if I was in top condition to get a lower premium? The point is, for important data uses like this, I’d like to know. I’m less concerned about non-sensitive data like the car I drive. I believe most of us are less concerned, but the mood around us is fear, exacerbated by a lack of understanding.

Too many privacy notices about both serious uses (e.g. AI for parole purposes) and relatively trivial matters (e.g. marketing preferences) can desensitise people to the message, making them not notice when they should. A recent study by the UK’s Financial Conduct Authority draws this conclusion in relation to risk warnings. Similar research about privacy notices is, in the author’s view, urgently needed to stem the increasing push for over-notification.

For those who still don’t like data use of any kind, we must support opt-outs. But as generations progress, the research suggests people will be less sensationalised, because they’re more accustomed to it; in other words, they better understand data.

So what next?

GDPR has driven positive change. Data owners are working harder on simple and creative ways of presenting information, rather than long T&Cs. Responsible organisations are ensuring they do all they reasonably can to promote transparency, but as an industry, we can do more. I don’t think we’ll ever stop bad news being catnip to those who sell stories, but I do think the industry, together with government, can increase the understanding of how data works for us, rather than against us.

Data is here to stay and, even if the benefits aren’t immediately apparent, harnessing it to do good should be the common goal. We won’t achieve that goal if we overreact – only if we understand and act to improve.

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