A Data Problem or a Trust Problem?

by | Aug 28, 2019 | ICT4D |

Our devices are becoming ‘smarter’ – from washing machines to fridges to phones, watches, cars, thermostats, door locks, lights, and many more. As our devices are connected to each other and the internet, they ‘learn’ more about us as we interact with them. It all relies on data – data that we put in about ourselves (usually called ‘our profile and preferences’), data captured by how we interact with the device, and then data the device pulls from the internet about ‘people like us’.

The promise of the smart devices is that it makes our lives easier, whether that’s because we can control everything from an app on our phone or because they help us reduce waste and cost by using only what is ‘needed’ or some other promise.

Companies tend to love smart devices because they give the companies data about their customers which they can use to make and design better products and/or customise their marketing to their customers.

But this isn’t a post about smart devices or even the internet of things. Underlying all of this, and in fact families, teams, communities, and culture, is trust. Trust is essential for societies to function. And trust is even more critical as we become more and more digital.

We capture data everywhere and it can be used to improve our lives or it can be used to control us. As we continue to create longer digital trails and footprints, our data can be used to benefit our lives – insights into how to improve our health, how to waste less resources, how to ‘create’ more time for the people we love, how to improve how systems and services are designed to serve us better, and so on. And yes, we can enable each individual to have ‘control’ over their data and how it is used, and yet this means we lose sight of the community data and how communities function, behave, interact, and so on.

In fact this data challenge is not new, we have had data about individuals, communities, nations, etc. for centuries – just visit a government ministry or a university research department. The challenge isn’t about data and whether we have it or not; it is about trust. Do we trust the people who have access to the data to act and use the data in ways that benefit us or our communities or do they act in ways that only benefit themselves or their bottom line?

In many ways we want companies to have data about us and how we use their services and products because we want them to improve their products and services. However, we get upset when the companies use our data for purposes we don’t agree with – when they generate revenue by selling our data to other companies, when they primarily use our data to bombard us with marketing spam. Each time they behave in this way, our trust breaks a little more.

And as trust breaks, suspicion sets in. When we learn our ‘smart devices’ are actually listening and ‘spying’ on us, trust starts to crumble.

And this is true of smart devices as well as collecting data in humanitarian contexts where we show up with data about the people affected already because we collected in other projects or it was shared by other organisations. Without communicating this clearly and often, people freak out and trust breaks a little more.

Building trust requires continual and consistent communication and transparency – the choice is up to us.

Photo by Sebastian Scholz (Nuki)


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