On a walk with our kids, I found all of us sturdy walking sticks. Appropriate length and weight for us. And off we set. After two minutes of idyllic instagram worthy walking bliss, everything began to change. These beautiful walking sticks transformed into snakes, wands, stick man, worms, pole vaults, baseball bats, hockey sticks, and of course swords.
The first few transformations were fun. Imaginations ran wild as the trees and path transformed along with the sticks. The adventure stories accompanying each transformation were fit for the 2020 children’s book awards.
But then the inevitable happened. Part of me knew it was inevitable, but I hoped this time would be different. Sticks turned into weapons. Swords for adventurers first, but then someone got hit in a way they didn’t like. And the unravelling happened quickly. What started as idyllic bliss ended in mayhem.
Sticks can easily be broken, disposed of. However, data can’t. And yet the same thing happens with data. We collect it for a ‘good’ purpose, but we forget or ignore a need for governance. It will be different this time we tell ourselves. Or more often we tell ourselves, we are different so bad things won’t happen with the data.
But once we have the data, the inevitable transformation begins. We notice how it could be used to help understand X even though X wasn’t why we collected it in the first place. And then X becomes Y, then Z and then it jumps to Q, M, E, G, J and so on. And soon the data is all over the place. No one knows where it all is. No one is held responsible. It’s unfortunate we say.
We see this happening with health data turned into surveillance data or included in hiring data analysis. We see it with humanitarian data being included in asylum seekers analysis. Or welfare data used for target payday loans.
Unfortunate should no longer be acceptable. We know better. It is time governance is taken seriously. A stick is never just a stick.