Raising awareness:

Can we trust data-driven systems to influence our lives?

As a result of rapid technological innovation, we are all well aware that business as usual is changing drastically. And perhaps more rapidly than we can imagine. How to innovate effectively and efficiently? All meaningful answers point in the direction of the use of data analytics. Yet, we all worry about its trustworthiness.

Data analytics makes everything is possible

Paraphrasing General Motors CEO, Mary Barra: “I think there’s going to be more change in the next five to ten years than there’s been in the last fifty”. And we all attest to it. According to Wilco Leenslag, KPMG strategy and innovation manager, it is the central truth to his work. “We all want to innovate,” he says, “which bears tremendous promise because, essentially, technological innovation makes everything possible.”

How to innovate effectively and efficiently? All answers point in the direction of data and analytics. “Data and analytics increasingly shape our world. Complex analytics are delivering better, faster decisions and this is driving rapid investment across all business sectors,” a recent KPMG study confirms.

However, its relevance is not restricted to the business world as such: “Today, the impact of analytics goes far beyond organizational boundaries and underpins many of the most important decisions that we make as individuals and societies.”

Big Brother? That’s us

Yet, despite the power it holds, many organizations, companies as well as individuals worry about the trustworthiness of data analytics. Citing Christian Rast, KPMG’s global head of data and analytics: “Trust underpins everything we do as companies, as people, and as society.” So our mistrust in data analytics is creating a ‘trust gap’ that is increasingly problematic.

How to bridge this gap? It makes sense to start by creating awareness, while working towards creating a solid foundation of trust in data systems. “We should start by becoming more aware of the extent to which we are being influenced by data-driven systems,” Wilco Leenslag emphasizes. “Big Brother? That’s us. As end users, we allow parties to use our data easily, basically by clicking ‘next’. As a result, systems are increasingly determining our behavior – explicitly and implicitly – and we’re hardly aware of it.”

“We are all well aware of the consequences of debt, alcohol and drug use on our personal lives, but the influence of the use of online systems is something we still largely ignore” – Wilco Leenslag, KPMG strategy and innovation manager

Wider societal trust

An important next step is for us to find ways to establish wider societal trust in how organizations operate in a data-driven society. Technological innovation is allowing all of us to feel more informed and in charge of our lives than ever before. At the same time, it is also making us increasingly vulnerable to manipulation that comes in all new shapes and forms.

Who will protect us from the rampant influence of data-driven platform systems? “This is a hugely important public debate that we are only now starting to have in society,” Wilco states. “These data-driven systems are allowing us all sorts of new freedoms, but are simultaneously impacting our safety, privacy, health, quality of life in ways that we can only start to imagine.”

Ethical versus comfortable living

There is an apparent tension between our ethical responsibility to be informed before consuming a certain product or allowing our data to be used by a certain company, on the one hand, and our wish to live easily and comfortably on the other.

Wilco illustrates this tension nicely: “We are all well aware of the consequences of debt, alcohol and drug use on our personal lives, but the influence of the use of online systems – such as Google, Facebook and Uber – is something we still largely ignore”.

In 2018, new legislation will come into force in the Netherlands, that will demand transparency of organizations and companies as to what algorithms they are using, what goes into them, and what comes out. As a result, it is to be expected that consumer organizations will increasingly ask questions to service deliverers, such as health insurance companies.

This type of legislation encourages us to increasingly ponder an important question: how do we maximize personal and societal benefits of technological innovation to the fullest, while safeguarding our knowledge of and trust in the systems that drive it?