Open minds? How data & diversity can change the digital economy

Open minds? How data & diversity can change the digital economy

The pandemic has provided countless examples of rapid progress and scientific advances that would not have been possible without an open and collaborative approach to data.

As Vice President and Deputy General Counsel, IP Group at Microsoft, Jennifer Yokoyama is passionate about unlocking the value of data for the benefit of everyone.

Jennifer is the first guest from within Microsoft to talk to Casper Klynge on our #TechFit4Europe podcast, where she also discusses the lack of diversity in tech, and what the industry can do to attract and retain a diverse workforce.

Here are five takeaways from their conversation.

1. The data divide is real – but it doesn’t have to be inevitable

Fewer than 100 businesses control more than 50% of the data generated by online interactions. This allows them to reap the enormous benefits of data and AI while others are left at a disadvantage. Open, shared data is crucial to unlocking this opportunity for all, and it will be vital if we’re to make progress on the issues that matter most.

“You need to be able to share with governments, with nonprofits, with researchers, with other companies to help tackle bigger problems that, frankly, without collaboration are not going to be solved,” Yokoyama believes.

2. It’s time to focus on the benefits, while acknowledging the risks

Europe recognizes the power of industrial data and its ability to drive economic opportunity. With its European Data Strategy and the proposed Data Governance Act it is trying to encourage sharing and collaboration between sectors.

The European Data Strategy and the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) put forward frameworks to ensure data is used responsibly, but improving trust around data will remain the most effective way to open it up. This is particularly relevant in the context of digital transformation and industrial data, which will be key to accelerating innovation and AI development in Europe.

Yet the bloc still tends to err on the side of caution when it comes to data sharing. We need to tilt the balance more in favor of acknowledging that the benefits of sharing data are greater than many of the risks, Yokoyama believes.

It’s important to remember there are different types of data – and even very general data is getting caught up in the privacy debate. An example of this is a study Microsoft is working on around the effect of climate change on glaciers. It involves data from a lot of sources, and researchers from different fields. It has the power to make a big impact, and privacy concerns around that type of data are unnecessary.

Even with data that includes personal information, there are tools emerging that can enable sharing without sacrificing privacy. Once there is more familiarity with these tools, people will feel more comfortable to share information and collaborate.

“The value that you can get from using and working and collaborating around data far outweigh the benefits of holding onto that data,” Yokoyama says. “And when you can show that you can share information without having big concerns on the privacy side, the value far outweighs any potential risk.”

“You’re really mitigating the risk through technology, through careful consideration, being very safe with the data, and also, paying attention to and working with regulators to make regulations that help progress both of them. I really don’t see it as an either/or; I see it as a way we need to advance and grow together.”

3. The power of open data has been put on display during the pandemic

From graphs showing the trajectory of Covid-19, to vaccine availability and test data, the pandemic has generated countless examples of where data has enabled rapid advances.

For example, repurposing air quality data has allowed the Turing Institute and the London Data Commission to better understand how people responded to restrictions introduced as a result of the spread of the virus, supporting London authorities during lockdown and with planning once lockdown was lifted.

It’s an example of a data set that, without an open data approach, would have only been used within a narrow focus, Yokoyama says. “You would never have been able to so quickly repurpose it to deal with an immediate and pending crisis.”

4. Collaboration on data will accelerate progress

Combining data from the public and private sector gives policymakers more information as a basis for decisions.

For example, one project in London is looking at where best to place charging stations for electric vehicles. They are using public-sector data about traffic and layering it with private-sector data about charging and power supply.

On top of this, if companies open their data to each other, that will help drive progress towards the common goal of increasing the number of energy-efficient cars on the road.

“It’s kind of like a rising tide raises all boats,” Yokoyama says. “I don’t think any one company can grow and innovate as fast and as effectively alone as they could if they were to be sharing their data and their insights to help the whole industry move forward.”

5. Technology companies need to focus on making diverse groups feel included

Technology companies still have a problem with diversity. It’s not just about recruiting a broader range of people – it’s about retaining them. To boost the number of women and minority groups, companies need to ensure they feel like they are contributing, valued and have a voice.

“Frankly, that’s everyone’s job,” she says. “It is specifically and intentionally something we need to pay attention to, it’s something we need to work on, and it’s something that will only make us better. Every study you see shows that including women in tech just boosts the economy, it boosts innovation, and having a more diverse work environment, it’s good for business, it’s good for the economy, it’s good all around.”

Yokoyama herself is a board director for the nonprofit ChIPs, which aims to connect women working in technology, law and policy.

She concludes: “A lot of companies have really good programs to bring people in, and then it’s business as usual. And that business as usual is not always very inviting to women or minorities.”

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