coyle12_NicoElNinoGetty Images_citydataconnections NicoElNino/Getty Images

It’s Now or Never for National Data Strategies

While the private sector is rushing ahead to amass as much data as it can, governments and public policymakers are only just beginning to grapple with the unique challenges posed by data-driven markets. As a critical resource that is unlike anything that came before it, big data demands a robust policy response.

CAMBRIDGE – Everybody seems to agree that data will play a fundamental role in the economy of the future, whether through health discoveries, smart energy grids, autonomous vehicles, or other areas of innovation. The problem is that nobody knows precisely how the new forms of economic value will be created, who will benefit, or what the regulatory response should be. In addition to enthusiasm about the power of big data, there are growing concerns about its potential to be abused, including in the case of facial recognition and other applications that involve a significant erosion of privacy.

In any case, the volume of data being generated annually has grown at a staggering pace, increasing fourfold in just five years, by some estimates. Given this pace of growth, ensuring that the data explosion serves society’s interests has gained new urgency. Yet too little is known about who holds what data, or about the potential value of some forms of data as opposed to others.

As an economic matter, data are fundamentally different from most other goods and services such as cars, haircuts, and indeed oil. Two features of data, in particular, make assessing their value difficult, while at the same time underscoring the distinction between their potential value to society and their private-market value.