Notes from the TechAmerica Europe seminar in Brussels, March 27, 2013

This may not be the most timely event write-up ever produced, but in light of all the discussions I’ve had on the same themes during the past few weeks, I thought I’d share my notes anyway.

The purpose of the event was to peel away some of the hype layers around the “big data” discussion, and — from a European perspective — take a look at the opportunities as well as challenges brought by the increasing amounts of data that is available, and the technologies that enable its exploitation. As was to be expected, an ever-present subtext was the potential of having laws and regulations put in place which — while well-intentioned — can ultimately stifle innovation and even act against consumer interests. And speaking of innovation: Another theme running through several of the discussions was the seeming lack of technology-driven innovation in Europe, in particular when considered in the context of an economic environment in dire need of every stimulus it can get.

The scene was set by John Boswell, senior VP, chief legal officer, and corporate secretary at SAS, who provided a neat summary of the technology developments (cheap storage, unprecedented access to compute power, pervasive connectivity) giving rise to countless opportunities related to the availability, sharing and exploitation of ever-increasing amounts of data. He also outlined the threats posed to companies, governments, and individuals by those who with more sinister intent when it comes to data exploitation, be it for ideological, financial, or political reasons. Clearly, those threats require mitigation, but John also made the point that “regulatory overlays” can also hinder progress, through limiting or even preventing altogether the free flow of data.

The point about the tremendous value of data was vividly underlined by the speakers who followed. Katherine Butler (general counsel, Software Center of Excellence, Global Research Center, General Electric) reminded everybody of the tremendous potential inherent in industrial data. Real-time analytics of the vast streams of data coming from machines — be they wind turbines, jet engines or other machines — has the potential to be a differentiator for growth. The combination of great hardware, great software, and analytics can bring opportunity as well as disruption, but also requires a “re-imagining of outcomes”, a fresh look at ways of competing. She also pointed to the potential threat posed by legislation which treats personal and industrial data the same, as this would stall much of the innovation already underway and put a block on future initiatives that could be of great economic value.

Inputs from Simon Hampton (director for public policy Europe, Google) and Chiara Garattini (senior health researcher, health and life sciences innovation team UK, Intel) provided further examples of the opportunities inherent in capturing and analyzing ever more data from disparate sources. Both also stressed the tensions in inherent in capturing and analyzing personal data — while the results could be for the collective as well as individual good, there are many legitimate privacy concerns and ethical considerations.

Paul Mitchell (general manager, technology policy, Microsoft) neatly summarized the evolving privacy landscape, highlighting along the way how existing policy approaches are not only impractical, but also limit collective and individual benefit. His plea — which received nods of approval from the audience — was for a new approach which would see technology and policy evolve together, balancing the needs of all stakeholders.

A reminder that the bad guys are never far away was provided by Yun Shen (researcher, Symantec Research Labs, the BigFoot Project). More importantly, he outlined how big data provides opportunities as well as challenges when it comes to security. He too stressed the need for European policymakers and technology providers to engage in a more constructive dialogue (my words, not his — he put it far more politely).

My own presentation focused on the role of mobile devices. It’s important to remember that there are many different aspects to leveraging mobile devices in a data-driven world: access to content and applications; input of information; data streams coming from the device about location, when and how it’s being used, etc; device features offering additional capabilities (e.g. camera, accelerometer). Like the other speakers, I stressed the importance of not throwing out the baby with the bathwater; many data exploitation capabilities associated with mobile devices can have great benefits, and it would be a shame to make those unavailable to consumers in an attempt to prevent inappropriate use of data. I also cited the example of European innovation around the intersection of mobile and big data: the taxi app Hailo ( In light of the number of questions from the audience about this service, I did further research, and published a separate blog post about Hailo.

Back to the event: a highlight was the presentation by MEP Sean Kelly (EPP group rapporteur in the Industry, Research and Energy Committee of the European Parliament), in which he shed light on the European Parliament’s efforts to pass appropriate data protection legislation; he also provided a reminder of the tortuous negotiations necessary to arrive at the required consensus.

In summary: There was overall agreement that protection of personal data was important, and the discussion about ethical implications has only just begun (e.g. what are the potential consequences of being able to predict that somebody might be susceptible to a particular disease without ever having visited a doctor, or likely to commit a crime before even engaging in any overtly suspicious activities, let alone having had a brush with the law?). The main concern, however, was around over-regulation — laws and microregulations being put in place without any consideration of the bigger picture, which would stifle innovation, prevent benefits realization, and ultimately not serve the interests of the consumer or citizen who’s meant to be protected. As we’ve already got an example in the “cookie law” — which arguably has had pretty much had the opposite of the intended effect — these concerns are well founded. As the afternoon’s moderator, Ann Mettler (executive director, the Lisbon Council), stressed: Let’s continue the dialogue and work together to come up with a legislative framework that helps rather than hinders innovation and economic development and strives to protect individuals’ privacy rights without depriving them of the benefits of data-driven products and services.

PS: If another reminder is needed of the gulf that can exist between industry and government when it comes to the use of data, this blog post by Holger Kisker makes interesting reading.