By Harry van Dorenmalen
Societies across the world are reaping huge benefits from the new natural resource that is data. But at the same time that people are experiencing improvements in public safety, health care, flood protection, weather prediction, transport planning or water resource management, politicians around the globe are grappling with how to legislate data.
Here in Europe, the European Commission’s DG Connect has been instrumental in promoting an innovative Digital Economy. However, rhetoric that is currently emanating from parts of Europe reminds me of this: that in mid-19th century Britain, laws forbade the use of self-propelled vehicles without a person walking in front, waving a red flag to warn pedestrians of a vehicle’s approach and to slow its speed. This dramatic measure hindered early automotive adoption.
Take cloud computing as an example. From its outset, the success of cloud has been because of its flexibility and its global reach. It is about the best use of innovative computing resources. Pursuing an open approach to Cloud is at the foundation of the European Commission’s 2012 Cloud Computing strategy. Yet recently there have been calls for Europe to invest in its own Cloud infrastructure, as was proposed at the recent Cloud for Europe conference in Berlin. Building a standalone Cloud for Europe could result in the region shutting the door to an open cloud approach, taking a huge step backwards in terms of the growth of the digital economy. A separate cloud infrastructure would also limit international data flows, isolating Europe from the global economy and building trade barriers.
When it comes to legislation around analytics, what is needed are balanced, effective regulatory frameworks that enable both forward thinking solutions to leverage Big Data as well as a trusted and effective privacy regime. Significant steps are being taken in the right direction through programmes such as Horizon 2020 and the upcoming strategy for research in big data – which incorporates public-private partnerships. But ensuring that different rules and policies are integrated or run seamlessly side-by-side rather than contradict each other is crucial for their success.
We are approaching a new political era in the EU. A new European Commission and a newly-elected European Parliament will take up the reins of power, potentially altering the direction of the Digital Agenda. Realizing the promise of analytics does not also require sacrificing personal privacy. If we can harness the value created by Big Data and Big Data flows, we can begin to answer complex questions posed by just about every enterprise, city, school and community across the EU and beyond.
Tellingly, red flag laws for motor vehicles were repealed as they greatly restricted the take up of motorized vehicles. Big Data is still in its early days – it’s a resource that has the potential to create employment, foster trade and stimulate innovation and improve the quality of life. It is not by waving a red flag but instead by having more reasoned and reasonable discussions that Europe – and the world – will reap its rewards.