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The incentive to invest in 'clean' data

09 Dec 2019  |  Adam Gilsenan 
The incentive to invest in 'clean' data

If we want to continue using personal data, we’re going to have to accept that there will be a short term investment to collecting it clean, writes Adam Gilsenan. And that's okay.

‘Data is the new oil’ is very much in vogue for the advertising industry at the moment, and while the analogy has obvious flaws, what’s interesting to me is the damage that both have been doing to their respective environments.

The attitude of chasing the lowest price possible has led us to the point of no return with our natural environment, and it’s safe to say that cheap ‘dirty’ data is having the same effect on the media environment. As the German philosopher Friedrich Hegel said:

“The only thing we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history.”

With the environment, there is now a general acceptance that if we want to do things ‘clean’, it’s going to cost more. From organic food to renewable energy, a combination of simple supply and demand economics and the additional costs associated with doing things ‘clean’ means that for now, there’s no way around this — and it’s a cost that we are going to have to accept if we want to turn things around.

This has very much been a consumer led revolution, with people across the globe — albeit limited to affluent democracies — happy to pay more for better and cleaner products.

Unfortunately, when it comes to the media environment, and data in particular, the same acceptance and consumer led revolution has yet to materialise. We appear to be stuck chasing the lowest cost possible, not stopping to think about the damage we are in fact doing.

But perhaps thinking about this additional ‘cost’ in more detail will help move the industry forward — and the inverted commas for cost may give my argument away. There are three things that come to my mind when thinking about cost.

The first is simply, if something is for the good of the wider environment, should we see an increased price as additional cost at all? We invest in our homes, we invest in our kids, more pertinently we invest in our careers; surely the environment that fundamentally sustains our careers — and our lives as a result — is equally worthy of our investment.

The second thing I wonder is how costs got so low in the first place. In almost all industries — with food being perhaps the easiest to relate to — the practices being used in order to drive costs down are questionable to say the least.

One of many reasons China, and other emerging economies, were able to steal a march in production was because their costs were so much lower, as they paid little attention to the environmental damage they were doing. That is starting to change, and the impact of their higher costs is likely to have a huge impact on industry, as a result making environmentally friendly producers more competitive again.

These ‘low’ costs were artificial, unachievable without damaging the environment, and this is exactly where we are at the moment with data — with artificially low prices a result of the techniques being used to gather this data.

Finally — and perhaps most importantly for the business world — whilst doing things ‘clean’ might be more expensive at the moment, it won’t stay that way. As more and more people go ‘clean’, investment increases and processes and techniques become more efficient — bringing costs down.

The costs of renewable energy are already plummeting to the point that it’s almost not far off fossil fuel equivalents, and whilst organic food is still relatively expensive, costs have come down significantly. On top of this, as the demand grows, the supply will be scaled up and prices will reduce even further.

So my message to everyone is simple; if we want to continue using personal data, we’re going to have to accept that there will be a short term cost — or investment as I’d like to look at it — to collecting it clean.

Remember though, it’s likely those costs will come down; as the technology and methodology for collecting clean data improve and the supply and demand of clean data rebalances.

If the data you are buying or collecting is costing you peanuts, ask yourself — and more importantly your data provider — how it's being collected. And most importantly, whether it's doing our environment any good.


Adam Gilsenan is CRO at Rezonence

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