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Big Data and the Lonely Wolf

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It has become more valuable than ever to gather data yourself as an organisation. There are two reasons for this.

Firstly, search engines and other easy-to-search databases on the internet have been making more and more information publicly available: your competitors and the guy next door can see it too. So in order to have a competitive advantage, you’ll need more than what you can get from publicly available information.

Secondly, exactly because more and more information is becoming publicly available on the internet, the information you find there is becoming generally less and less relevant. The magnitude of the internet grows by 100% every year. Not seeing the forest for the trees or looking for a needle in a hay stack is putting it mildly.

When it comes to data, the only way to attain a distinct and relevant position is by handling it yourself: gathering it, analysing it and making it relevant for your organisation. Look at the renowned big names of Silicon Valley: Google, Facebook, Instagram. These companies are revered, all because of their position in the world of online information, and the money made from it. But the offline world too is becoming more and more searchable.

Last Monday was national iSPEX day in the Netherlands, during which 5000 Dutch iPhone users used their smartphones with high-precision global positioning – to measure harmful dust particles in the air. Similar devices are in development for testing the safety of drinking water, but also to tell if a piece of meat in your supermarket really is organic. The Trading Standards Institute could become redundant within a week in that regard.

How are the major companies doing when it comes to information gathering? Not very well, I have to conclude every time I’m on the phone with a call centre. “Can you tell me your customer ID, sir?” – while I’m sure I’m calling them from the cellphone number that’s in their database. For that matter, I’d rather not be addressed as ‘sir’ as a 26 year old either, considering I had to fill in my birth date when setting up my contract. And let’s not even think about companies like that having their act together with modern possibilities for gathering data from outside the company.

Unfortunately, in the large companies it’s often one lonely wolf who’s in charge of handling big data, getting co-workers to share “their” data, and finding a way to make the information searchable and relevant. And within organisations that are actually very advanced in the area of gathering data, it’s also lonely wolves who have to remind everyone of the limitations set by privacy laws.

Unfortunately, one lonely wolf won’t change the world. Unless his name is Edward Snowden.

This column is written by NewTeam-partner Danny Mekic’ on request of the Dutch Radio 1.

Self-driving cars: who is to blame is not the question

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Who is to blame when a self-driving car crashes? This question is posed by Elmar Degenhart, chief executive of Continental (Companies & Markets, March 7), and it’s easier to answer than he implies. Just as in a “regular” traffic accident, the movements of each car will need to be scrutinised and compared to the relevant traffic rules. If it turns out that I’ve caused the accident with my vehicle, whether my car was self-driving or not, then I (or my insurance) have to pay the bill.

If my car was driving itself, then if I believe the “driver” could have and should have avoided the accident, the manufacturer will get a damages claim, with justification. Then a judge will decide what I could have expected of my self-driving car, relying among other things on a large pile of legal disclaimers and my own behaviour. Because as long as the self-driving car’s vulnerability to malfunctions, hacking and miscalculations isn’t clear, manual intervention needs to remain possible anyway – just like the autopilot of an aircraft.

This is a good thing: it forces manufacturers to first make their systems safe before they start self-driving experiments with human lives at stake. Drivers, in turn, need to remain cautious when their tractors pass near vulnerable human bodies. So the question of who to blame isn’t interesting at all, although the industry’s attempt to use this debate to shift the responsibility to a neutral third party, such as a compensation fund, is a nice try.

What the debate should really be about is an ethical dilemma: what should my self-driving car do if, in an accident, it could save my life by taking that of another (or more than one other) road user?

If self-driving car manufacturers think they can answer that question, let them pick up the bill, too.

This article, written by NewTeam-partner Danny Mekic’, has been published in the Financial Times.

Fighting for the future

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Industrialisation made it possible for one invention to be manufactured on a large scale, and globalisation made it possible for it to be sold everywhere in the world. Never before had there been so many companies, customers, products and services that needed to find one another. Around the world, in every language you can think of. A gigantic ‘matchmaking industry’ was born to serve that globalisation and to bring products and services to people’s attention: from marketeers to translators, from a creative industry that could create the most impressive advertising messages, to the companies that would convey those commercial, persuasive messages to the public. That industry grew into an end in itself.

By now, the technology companies in Silicon Valley have been damaging that industry. It happens more and more often that those 24 hours during which an ad campaign can seduce us into buying something, are under more and more pressure, like a pressure cooker. We choose of our own accord to spend more and more time with electronic devices on which Google, Facebook, Twitter, Youtube and other platforms sell our attention to companies that hunger for new customers and more sales. They’ve won, but now it’s the social media that fight on their platforms for more of our attention and our time.

There’s more and more of them. There’s Uber, pairing taxi drivers and their passengers. There’s Airbnb, offering unoccupied apartments for short stay, which is popular among tourists. There’s Shapeways, letting designers have their 3D designs printed and sold to customers. There’s more and more of them, and it’s becoming too much. And so, we’ll have to do without some of them again in the future.

But they’re not the only ones in a tough spot: more and more industries will have to compete with the regionalisation that social platforms enable, and with the micro-industrialisation enabled by 3D printing, and meanwhile small companies will drop out of the race for lack of the means to invest in the innovation of the products and services themselves. Innovation is no longer a luxury: it’s become a survival strategy.

There are three questions we’ll need to answer about the future: what will our products and services be like in the future, how do we handle marketing and communication, and how can we ourselves best evolve into a platform of supply and demand?

Danny Mekić (1987), jurist and an expert in technology, wrote this article for Accenture