What Is Data? Part 3 : T is for ‘Terminating Analogies’


Data Is The New Soil

In 2013, Mark Cameron wrote ‘Data is not the new oil, it is the new soil.’

“Oil is valuable. If you find, collect and store oil it will remain valuable. Data is a very different thing. Data is generated when people do something. It is a record of an event. That means it starts losing value almost as soon as it is generated because it ages. We can see trends and obtain insights but to get real value from data it must be used in real time. Simply gathering and storing data is a pointless exercise.”

Can’t argue with that … but still, I reject it.

It is still about the exploitation of data that is not freely given by ‘we the people’ to businesses.

Sure, we wrap the idea up in customer care and nurturing, just as one does when growing plants in a garden, but at the end of the day Cameron’s argument – which seems to emerge from the work of David McCandless who writes at Information is Beautiful  is simply a clever play on ‘(s)oil’ and sits squarely in old thinking. And I’m not the only one who thinks that.

“The soil analogy is certainly better than big oil but to me, it’s still about personal data being something that’s owned and used by marketers, rather than recognizing that data is used by all of us – both individually and collectively.”

–StJohn Deakins

No. ‘Data’ is not ‘The New Soil’.

Data Is The New Water

StJohn then went on and suggested that ‘Data is water’ which talks to personal ownership but in the context of a collective commons and a shared environment. ‘Abundance vs Exploitation’.

StJohn Deakins is the founder of CitizenMe and a member of the Global Internet Identity Community, which is populated by very savvy and bright people wrestling to the ground identity problems that most of us don’t even recognize, much less understand. StJohn extended that thought and wrote this for the HuffPost eighteen months ago. He basically rejects the idea that ‘Data is the new Oil’, doesn’t even touch on the soil idea – and suggests that ‘Data is actually the New Water’.

Guess what? I disagree! I like very much the break away from the concept of mining and extraction, focussing on the resource and availability of water – but the argument is flawed.

StJohn lists seven reasons, which I repeat here with my rebuff. Click through if you want to read the whole article.

1] Water gives life (oil takes it)

REBUFF: Water can also take life. Between 2005 AND 2014, there were ten deaths by drowning per day just in the USA. Oil, when used as a fuel, can also save life when used to fuel heat, machines to transport us, etc, etc.

2) Water is abundant (oil is scarce)

REBUFF: It really does depend on where you are in the world. Water is about to become our scarcest resource.

Water scarcity already affects every continent. Around 1.2 billion people, or almost one-fifth of the world’s population, live in areas of physical scarcity, and 500 million people are approaching this situation. Another 1.6 billion people, or almost one-quarter of the world’s population, face economic water shortage (where countries lack the necessary infrastructure to take water from rivers and aquifers).

–United Nations (Link)

3) Water is purified (oil is processed)

REBUFF: Check out what went on in Flint, Michigan. It doesn’t make the headlines anymore, but the residents in May 2018 still don’t trust their water. As for the rest of America?

Don’t take my word for it … go look at the EWG web site. They spent three years investigating the country’s drinking water and found that

“… roughly 85% of the population was using tap water laced with over 300 contaminants, many with unknown long-term effects and more than half of which aren’t even regulated by the EPA.”

4) Water is distributed (oil is centralized)

REBUFF: While it is true that Water is everywhere – the business of Water is as centralized as oil. Just one example; Peter Brabeck-Letmathe (Chairman Emeritus of Nestle) said (and I paraphrase) … ‘that it is an extreme solution to assume water is a human right’. After the inevitable outcry, he walked back his public position. But we know how that works don’t we?

And who is Nestle? Well, they own Arrowhead for example. Arrowhead the water company. Arrowhead who since 1947 has been taking water out of the San Bernadino desert at the rate of 62 million gallons per year, at no charge, with no permit, packaging it and selling it to people in the USA. And stripping the world of a natural resource.

5) Water is democratic (oil is ‘owned’)

REBUFF: Actually water is owned – think ‘Chinatown’ as one example. Think Nest;e / Arrowhead as a second. Think the rows and rows and shelves and shelves of water in every Supermarket you go into as a third.

6) Water is fresh (oil is stagnant)

REBUFF: Try telling that to Flint Michigan residents and for that matter many other Americans. Water in the USA is absolutely not fresh, It is processed, regenerated and regurgitated.

In any given year from 1982 to 2015, somewhere between 9 million and 45 million Americans got their drinking water from a source that was in violation of the Safe Drinking Water Act.

–Katie Langin – Science Magazine –  February 12, 2018

7) Water is human (oil is synthetic)

REBUFF: I think he means water is natural, part of us … true – but it still needs to be refined and protected. How else do we explain the industry of selling water?

No. ‘Data’ is not ‘The New Water’.

Data Is Music

Shortly after StJohn published his article, another fellow Global Identity Community member – LaVonne Reimer suggested that we were on the wrong track. That in fact ‘Data Is Music’. Apart from being the founder and CEO of Descant Labs, LaVonne is also a musician and draws on her studies in music theory and orchestration to build digital platforms.

To my knowledge, LaVonne has not published this concept, but she did write about it to the IIW community. To me, it felt so much closer to my own thinking that I wanted to repeat it here.

“We each are our own symphony and personal data we add, contribute, and others glean about us across the web are notes.

You could argue that F sharp or E flat in my symphony are indistinguishable from all other like notes but they add up to a distinctive representation of me which is something I think music can illuminate the animate aspects of us which get lost in most big data systems today.

Data is nothing but bits and we need to create symphonies of wisdom from those bits and if one bit is wrong …. the symphony is not what it could be. [In fact get a few notes wrong and the whole thing falls apart …]”

–LaVonne Reimer

I have to say, her analogy did remind me of Eric Morecambe.

‘I’m playing all the right notes – just not necessarily in the right order’

–Eric Morecambe [1]

In the Lavonne was as close to my thinking as I have yet read and it broke out of the analogy paradox. Data is not the ‘new’ anything … it simply ‘is’.

I liked the thinking, but for me, it lacked completion, so …

No. ’Data’ is not ‘Music’.

In part four, I shine my own light on the topic and introduce you to my take on what I think Data Is.

‘Is’ mind you, not ‘the new’.

[1] I have set the autoplay to start 1 minute before the line itself to provide context – but the whole sketch is well worth a watch if you have a spare 12 minutes.


John Philpin
John Philpin
JOHN'S career spans 30 years, 2 continents, and organizations as diverse as Oracle, Citibank and GE. A Mathematics graduate, John moved to California in 1990. He helps technology companies create, develop and deliver their story for fund raising, market development and influencer programs. He also works with businesses to ensure they understand, and are ready, for the ever accelerating changes that technology is bringing to their industry. John is a co-founder of Expert Alumni and gleXnet and long before futurists and industry watchers were writing about the impending challenges that industries were going to be facing, they predicted a perfect storm of issues like skills gap, declining work forces, the gig economy, people trained to do work no longer needed, demographic shifts, economic and social change, market upheaval and rapidly changing ways of doing work. From the beginning they have promoted the idea that massive change was coming to how organizations should think about their workforce, with a singular focus on simplifying the interface between people and their work. Understanding the challenges ahead of the curve, the solution was built to arrive at a better understanding of the greatest restraint to business operations - competence, not capital. gleXnet provides unparalleled insights into an organizations people and operations by flipping the problem from the perspective of people, not the business.

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