Neelie Smit: Digital oil

Neelie Smit thinks digital data is the future but we will have to face a couple of pesky issues, like privacy.

The information or knowledge society isn’t about technology, the internet or gadgets. It’s about digital data and how to use it.

The advantages of digital data are enormous. Unlocking digital data effectively stimulates research and innovation and economic growth. Its use stimulates engagement in society and makes life easier for consumers. Think of the use of data for large-scale scientific research, or research into customer preference, fraud detection and the development of new products and services.

But there is more. Harvard University has found that an effective use of digital data can improve the quality of healthcare and even save lives. An instrument like Twitter turns out to be much better at detecting and locating cholera outbreaks than the traditional diagnostic methods.

Analogue age

Many of the possibilities for digital data use are hitting a wall of rules and economic and administrative strategies from the analogue age. Copyright rules, privacy laws and the antiquated business models of scientific publishing companies are blocking the access to information.

Sometimes there are good reasons to limit access but often the reason is a lack of innovative, digital drive.

Amsterdam Open Data is an example of how things should develop. On this website citizens can find information about what the council is spending, which projects it is supporting and which services it has to offer. Other examples are the famous Buienradar which tells you when to expect a shower, and the Vistory-app which brings history closer to the people.

But digital data also confronts us with some uncomfortable and complex dilemmas. Are we prepared to compromise our right to privacy if it will give us more influence on the state of our health? How long should we continue to support stuffy business models which stop innovation and scientific breakthroughs? Why hold on to the old copyright rules if they hinder economic growth and don’t benefit the authors or developers?


Fortunately reality isn’t this black and white and more data doesn’t automatically lead to a loss of privacy or more profits. A good example of this is the Rijksstudio for culture, the website of the Rijksmuseum which offers people a guided tour of 125,000 works of art. Art is made accessible for all and the museum benefits by attracting visitors. It’s a creative, clever use of data.

Digital data has been dubbed the new oil. But where oil is getting scarce, the possibilities of digital data keep growing. We should recognise its potential and use it to fuel the economy and society. In that way we all benefit.

Neelie Smit is Euro commissioner for the Digital Agenda



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