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Singapore becoming too reliant on a murky data economy

SINGAPORE'S embrace of data is well known. The city-state has ambitious Smart City plans which include driverless cars, air taxis, "Virtual Singapore", in-home monitoring systems and more. One thing many of these innovations and initiatives have in common is that they depend on accurate data, and the data economy, to bring to fruition. Added to that, Singapore is home to an increasing number of sectors whose core business model depends on data, from data-storage centres to fintech firms and analytics companies. While this is well known, what is not talked about is where the data that will power these ambitions and business models comes from, and how accurate it is.

Many businesses in Singapore acquire their data from what has come to be known as the data economy. The data economy is, simply put, the creation, trading and purchasing of data. This starts with data producers (such as mobile apps, social media sites and loyalty card companies) who create the data. They then sell this to buyers such as F&B firms who wish to open a new restaurant, to FMCG companies that want to know how their products are selling or to governments planning a new train line.

This economy is huge, with 2.5 quintillion bytes of data created each day at our current pace. It is increasingly valuable too, with revenues for big data and business-analytics solutions forecast to reach US$260 billion by 2022.

However, despite its size and importance, the data economy lacks transparency. The data supply chain is made up of layers of middlemen in the form of data aggregators who gather data and sell it to other firms. So, if a restaurant chain wanted information on the number of patrons visiting eateries in a certain area, it would purchase this data from a specialist firm, which in turn may have purchased that data from another firm (such as a survey company).

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Many of these firms, though, hide their data sources. This can be done for legitimate reasons (protecting their sources), or malicious reasons (the data is fake, inaccurate, replicated or corrupted). Ultimately, the company purchasing that data, making major decisions and spending millions of dollars based on that data, has no idea where it originally came from. They are purchasing a product blind.

Why does this matter for Singapore, and Singaporean companies? Data can be faked and replicated very easily. Click farms exist to fabricate data that can then be sold on; survey firms often sell data per person interviewed, so the more interviews they claim to conduct, the more revenue creating an incentive to exaggerate and increase numbers. This is not theoretical, it has happened, does happen and will continue to happen. Yet this unquestioning reliance on data could have hidden costs from failed businesses to slower economic growth or poorer healthcare services.

Even the Singapore government will rely on the data economy to make decisions, from health care investments to where to locate train stations or other investment choices. Soon there will be more devices in Singaporeans' homes that are connected to the Internet than not. And as we become more connected, and use more data to make decisions, it is imperative that we gain a better grip on the source of the data we use.

Technology caused this problem, and technology can provide the solution. Data authentication technology that uses blockchain is able to "stamp" a unique signature to data as it is created. This means that, should this data be changed or corrupted from its original state, there will be a misalignment to the unique signature, signalling to the buyer that the data has been changed.

Most importantly though, there will be accountability as data that turns out to be poor quality can be traced directly to its source.

A good example of real-world effects of poor data can be seen in the recent Facebook controversy, in which the social media company was accused of inflating video viewership metrics by up to 900 per cent. Thinking that videos were more effective than they were, many firms fired their writers in favour of expensive video producers and proceeded to create more video content, only to realise limited returns.

In a data economy where data is stamped and authenticated at its source, Facebook would not have been able to inflate these metrics.

These are exciting times for Singapore and the country is going in the right direction when it comes to using data to make our lives better. However, it is time we started to understand how the data economy works, and demand more transparency, provenance and authenticity. This will result in more trust and better-quality decisions.

  • The writer is CEO and founder of Quadrant Protocol, a blockchain-based protocol that maps and authenticates data.