Give data back to the people

Often when we talk about big data, we talk about the endless opportunities it provides us. However, we should also talk about ownership of data and how it is interpreted. One thing is data extraction. Another thing is the ability to interpret and use it.

Raw data in itself is useful but not as useful as the ability to analyse and interpret it. This brings me to the question of ownership. It is only possible to interpret and analyse if you have access to the data in question. And in the end, it boils down to ownership and power.

Journalist Ben Tarnoff writes about giving data back to the people in an article for The Guardian and uses the analogy of data being the new oil, a point that Samar also makes in one of his previous posts.

Imagine if big data is a resource open and accessible for all. Imagine if all the data we create everyday through insignificant acts such as liking a friend’s post on Facebook or adding something to a wish list on Amazon, or surfing websites, is open to all.

Every act we perform on the internet leaves traces. And many of us don’t think about these traces we leave in our online wake as something we should own since we willingly give up the information. But the fact is, we are all contributing to the goldmine that is big data. And, that goldmine is owned by very few.

Fortunately, we as consumers and citizens are becoming more aware of how a handful of companies, such as Facebook, Google and Amazon, are using technology to monitor and manipulate us.

Open data

Activists and open source adherents call for an open data movement where data is open to the public so citizens have the chance to reclaim their decision-making role. Access to more data can empower citizens and improve lives.

Academics Nick Couldry and Ulises A. Mejias talk about data colonialism, a point Emanuel also makes in his previous post. Couldry and Mejias argue that a new social order is in the making where continuous tracking of human beings is leading to social discrimination and exploitation of human beings through data.

As long as data is not open and public, it creates an “annexation of capital to private lives” (Couldry & Mejias 2018: 6). The commodification of data makes it impossible for us as ordinary citizens and consumers to avoid the grips of big business. Opponents say you can always opt out, but how? Big companies like Google, Facebook and Amazon dominate the online space. “Consider the fast-growing ´Internet of things´- The goal is clear: to install into every tool for human living the capacity to continuously and autonomously collect and transmit data within privately controlled systems of uncertain security” (Couldry & Mejias 2018: 9).

Amazon is one of the largest colonisers and uses technology to monitor our lives and sell us things based on our activities online. For example, its new supermarket model. With its acquisition of Whole Foods in 2017, Amazon, has gone from being an online retailer to a combination of both online and physical. Having removed all checkout counters, Amazon allows shoppers to walk out of their stores with goods without having to pull out their wallets. The sensors at the exits monitor the goods and shoppers are billed to their Amazon account. Another example of Amazon colonising our private lives, is their trial drone delivery service. When dropping off deliveries, the drones take pictures of roofs only to send roof repair ads to those in need of repairs.

“Is this convenient or creepy? It depends. One minute, you’re grateful for the personalised precision of Netflix’s recommendations. The next, you’re nauseated by the personalised precision of a Facebook ad” (Tarnoff 2018, The Guardian)

I don’t know about you, but I find it creepy. What do you think? Share your thoughts in the comment section below.


  1. Hi Lan, thanks for the thought-provoking post! I was especially captured by the image of an internet where data was available to all, not just the ‘internet giants’. I should have considered big data earlier, but I admit I only started to proactively learn about it after the Cambridge Analytics scandal.

    Today I’m of two minds. Here’s why: all the services I use online were produced, developed, or created by someone, and I believe it’s their right to be paid for it. We’re spoiled because we’re used to using many services for free. It’s a basic rule of marketing: if at the start you give it for free, it’ll be hard to get people to afterwards pay for it.

    In certain cases I see my data as a fair price to pay for certain ‘free’ services. For instances, gmail, Whatsapp, Facebook, or BBC News. It’s like having to watch add before watching a Youtube video. Still, l like transparency on what my data is being used for and reserve the right to say no. But if I say no, I also recognize their right to refuse access!

    That being said, I find data usage by online shops such as Amazon harder to accept…

    Is this a very flawed view?

    1. Lan Yu Tan

      Hi Alexandra,

      Thanks for your comments! And no, I don’t think your view is flawed at all. I think many of us are in this very same conundrum. On the one hand, we are reliant on these Internet giants for almost all aspects of daily life, and on the other, we are becoming increasingly reluctant to give up our privacy and data. Especially because we know that these giants are using the data to offer even more services and to get us to buy more. I think my biggest problem with them is that they claim to be doing it as a service to us. The claims of offering better, more seamless experiences online, predicting our likes (and dislikes) and so on. And to a great extent, this is the case, but I don’t think it’s worth giving up our privacy for. Like many, I think, “well, I don’t have anything to hide”. But it’s not a question of whether you have something to hide or not, but a question of privacy and freedom to make your own choices, and not ones based on algorithms calculating your every move online. Thanks again for commenting.

      Have a lovely day,

  2. Interesting read! However, where would you draw the line between being ‘creepy’ and ‘smart’ or ‘efficient’, in this context? Amazon, Google and Netflix – as mentioned in article – might argue that they ‘monitor our activities’ because we allow them to do so by using their service and agreeing to their T&C etc., in order to provide us a better quality and more tailored service, to meet our needs.

    1. Lan Yu Tan

      Hi Samar,

      Thanks for your comments! I understand what you mean. And yes, Google, Amazon and Netflix all collect our data in order to provide better services to meet our needs. But as I mentioned above in my reply to Alexandra, I think it’s important we have the freedom to choose what services we want and not, for example, those predicted by Google’s algorithms. Generally, I think there should be less tracking and less personalised ads. I worry about where we are headed in the journey of the Internet where tracking is just a part of daily life. And with the commodification of data, everything is up for grabs. I think it’s a disturbing development and I suppose I would like us to take stock and ask ourselves if this is the kind of world we want to live in. Sorry, got a bit existential there! Thanks again for commenting.

      Have a great day!

  3. Emanuel Foukou

    Great piece Lan. Have you ever been on an event wearing your own name tag and all of a sudden you’re approached by someone that you have never seen before, who is addressing you by your name? That feeling, at least for me, is kind of scary, and you start to think about how this person can now your name, etc. Isn’t it the same when it comes to big data, but on a much larger scale? Scary? Drones taking photos of your rooftop, gathering more and more information about your life, one can just imagine where we will be in 10 years, and if the big data revolution is reducing our freedoms in the West, what effects will it have on international development in the developing world in the long run?

    1. Lan Yu Tan

      Hi Emmanuel,

      Thanks for commenting. I completely agree. I think it’s a scary development and one we should all take seriously as citizens. We need to understand where this is going and right now, where it’s headed is not a great place. We are living in a world where all our online activities are tracked. How often do you turn off your phone? Most of us have localisation services turned on so Apple, Google, etc always know where we are at all times. Amazon, or another online retailer, knows that we like low-fat milk and push ads for low-fat milk to us. Drones drop off Amazon orders and know not to drop them on our heads due to their sophisticated technology. The thing is, so much good could be done with this incredible technology (and yes, I do think it is, in its purest form). My problem is that the technology is being used for profit. At least, that’s the most pervasive use I can see at this moment in time. Maybe in 10 years time it will be different. Let’s hope so! Thanks again for commenting.

      Have a lovely day,

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  6. GDF

    Interesting post, Lan. One could ask how to be out of this “surveillance”, nowadays big companies spy on us to change our habits, and they can do so because our new habits allow them to do so—when check-in in a place on FB or Instagram, and so on… every act we perform on the internet leaves traces.

    Of course, now there´s some awareness but not all the people bother to protect their security…but are we able to do that? and there´s also the GDPR in Europe, but again.. is that enough?

    Thanks for the reading! /Gaudi

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