Data is the new soil

It has been said, repeatedly, that data is the new oil. Here is how Clive Humby, the data science entrepreneur who coined the phrase “data is the new oil,” compares oil and data:

“Data is the new oil. Like oil, data is valuable, but if unrefined, it cannot really be used. It has to be changed into gas, plastic, chemicals, etc. to create a valuable entity that drives profitable activity. So, must data be broken down, analysed for it to have value.”

It was not until 2017 when the Economist published an article entitled “The world’s most valuable resource is no longer oil, but data” that the concept generated a lot of active discussions and this phrase becomes the new tagline with which the Fourth Industrial Revolution is rallying on.

To a point, I agree with Clive and his proponents. For example,

  • Oil is difficult and expensive to curate and process
  • Oil, as a new commodity, spawned a lucrative, fast-growing industry
  • Oil, when processed and utilised, provides incredible value

However, here are some aspects of oil that break the analogy:

  • Oil is a shrinking, limited resource, whereas data is growing exponentially.
  • Oil is ultimately toxic, whereas data is innocuous.
  • Oil is not durable or reusable, whereas data is both.

I prefer the analogy that data is the new soil. Why?

  1. Data is a rich, fertile medium.
  2. Data is worthless unless curated.
  3. Data is durable and reusable.

1. Data is a rich, fertile medium

Why is information so damn important? Like soil, it is not the medium itself that has value, but that which the medium can produce. Soil feeds the world, but people do not eat soil – they eat the fruit of soil. So, too, with data – the benefit and value is found in the fruit that is harvested from it:

“If data is the new soil, then goal driven actionable insights are what organisations should be seeking to grow from it.” Barry Smart

The fertile medium of data can produce rich insights, powerful stories, wise decisions, and intelligent actions. The fruit of the soil of data can be life-changing – indeed, world-transforming. Whether it is the impact of medical research, the consequences of economic policy, or the ramifications of political campaigns, the power of information is colossal.

In the context of business and organisational change, the value of actionable data insights is immense – they drive strategy, inform policy, guide day-to-day decision making, and fuel innovation.

Consider these examples of household names who failed to understand and action information:

  • Kodak
  • Blockbuster
  • Lotus
  • Nokia
  • IBM
  • Blackberry

This chart says it all:

Conversely, think of brands that changed the world we live in because they adapted and disrupted with data-driven decisions and innovation:

  • Apple
  • UBER
  • Tesla
  • Amazon
  • Facebook
  • Google

Data, as the new oil, can produce a harvest of actionable insights that the way we live and work. The question is,

What harvest is your data producing?

What value are you getting from your data? How does it benefit and enhance your organisation? If you are struggling to obtain value, chances are it comes down to the next point:

2. Data is worthless unless curated

The average rice yield per harvested acre in the United States amounted to approximately 7,620 pounds in 2020, or 3,460 kg. This is enough rice to help sustain 25 families for an entire year.

Soil has incredible potential, but that potential is not realised unless the soil is curated – tilled, fertilised, sown, watered and tended – by skilled farmers. Without skilled curation, it lies fallow and unfruitful.

So it is with data – well-curated information brings forth a harvest of rich, actionable insights. Who, then, are the skilled “farmers” of data? They are the data curators – engineers, analysts, scientists and anyone else who manages the data value chain.

Barry Smart encapsulated the thought well when he said, “If data is the new soil, then your farmers are the people who will champion and sustain the value of data and analytics within the organisation over many years ahead.”

What is the role of the data curator?

  • The data curator’s main objective is to ensure users can access the right data for analysis and decision-making.
  • The curator also identifies required data sets.
  • He or she collects, cleanses and transforms these as needed.
  • The curator builds the required data pipelines.
  • He or she must ensure that the pipelines are reliable and secure.
  • Curators set and maintain appropriate data governance, privacy and security standards for each data set.
  • The data curator is responsible for making the information about data sets, such as their metadata and lineage documentation, available to users.

What is the relevance of this to your organisation? It is imperative that you invest in data literacy to up-skill and develop your workforce. For example, Gartner found that the “lack of skills was cited as the No. 1 challenge to the adoption of artificial intelligence and machine learning”, stating that “data and analytics leaders must empower citizens across the organisation to scale decision automation, accelerate time to market, and deliver sustainable business outcomes.”

3. Data is durable and reusable

Soil, when well cared for, can bring forth a harvest for many centuries, even aeons. Some farmland around the land has been fertile and productive for thousands of years, providing sustenance for entire communities across many generations. Soil that is well-curated is extremely durable and reusable.

So it is with the new soil, data. It is plentiful, durable, and reusable. I’m sure you’ve heard the statistics about how quickly data is growing and how much we are capturing, so let’s not go there again. How do we make sense of such massive numbers?

Think of one example, the cultural icon that is YouTube, now over 15 years old. As of 2022 data, YouTube hosts over 800 million videos among 37 million channels on the platform. 1 billion videos are watched per day on YouTube by its over 2 billion users. The daily active user count is 122 million and the average time people spend watching videos is 19 minutes. YouTube happens to be the world’s second most visited site, according to 2021 statistics with more than 14 billion monthly visits. It’s second only to its parent company, Google.

The potential of data as the new soil is going to be greater for every successive generation. It is imperative, then, that we handle and share data with responsibility, integrity, and equity. As data curators bring forth the fruit of actionable insights, the impact of these upon our society is going to steadily increase – let us do our part to make sure that that impact is for our growth and betterment.

Data is a powerful agent for change. However, not all members of society benefit equally from that power. Democratising data is increasing its impact: not just making it available, but approachable by unlocking it from behind the barrier of data science expertise. We need to be intentional about our data cultures and invest in data skills inside our organisation and across the community, in order to equip communities with the tools and knowledge needed to effectively use data. Technology solutions need to be made more accessible for community-based organisations.

TO REALLY MAKE SENSE OF DATA AND DERIVE VALUE FROM IT, WE NEED TO MAKE SURE THAT WE’RE EQUIPPING COMMUNITIES WITH TECHNOLOGIES, DATA CAPACITY TRAINING, AND TECHNICAL SUPPORT, SO THAT THEY CAN ACTUALLY USE THE DATA THAT’S SHARED BACK WITH THEM. – TABLEAU

Conclusion

We have seen that data can be thought of as the new soil, where:

  1. Data is a rich, fertile medium
  2. Data is worthless unless curated
  3. Data is durable and reusable

On a practical level, what does this mean to you, your family, your place of work, and your community? The key action item is to develop and distribute data literacy.

What is data literacy? Data literacy is the ability to explore, understand, question, and communicate with data. People across your organisation need to feel confident asking questions of data – and interpreting the answers.

“Everybody needs data literacy, because data is everywhere. It’s the new currency, it’s the language of the business. We need to be able to speak that.” — Piyanka Jain
What can, or must, we do to build a data literacy and explore the potential of data as the new soil?
  1. Foster data culture and data literacy in tandem. Design a framework to set common goals and structure initiatives for sustainable success.
  2. Hire and train for the future. Identify and recruit experts, or data champions, to inform corporate training programs. Build a culture of data-driven decision making to help you retain those experts.
  3. Invest in and facilitate data skills curricula. Communicate the value of data skills—from boosting career potential to using data to change the world.
“In God we trust, all others bring data.” — W. Edwards Deming

Appendix – Data Trends for 2022

This blog is inspired by the TED talk delivered by David McCandless in 2012. In the talk he gives examples of his design led approach to understanding data.

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