Reality check: the complexities of mapping the world in 2018

Although it’s widely believed that high-quality data is readily available and accessible, that's not always the case. It is more common, however, in regions with three common attributes.

binary code spanning a world map
Gerd Altmann (CC0)

Now more than ever, businesses are recognizing data sampling and visualization as a critical component of purchasing precise and relevant third-party data. Across the thousands of data sets I’ve examined over my career, many have contained major gaps or inaccuracies not initially apparent on the surface. However, vetting these data sets is just one of the challenges organizations face today.

What if there is no data to even buy? What if no creditable information exists in the areas you need to know more about?

With the exponential rise of physical, digital, mobile, and transactional data, many believe that complete, up-to-date, and reliable data—about anyone, anything, or any place—is readily available. Well, I’m here to tell them that they’re wrong. This information is simply not as obtainable as they think.

Exploring the demand for data

When you look at the origin of the data being collected by today’s businesses, it its being generated by people, connected devices, and activities. It is captured and subsequently made useful because there is a viable business demand for that generated data. In turn, it is made more widely available down the road once that data is offered to buyers at a reasonable price.

When we examine those regions with the greatest amount of readily available data, there are often three common attributes. These data-dense areas have:

  1. A large population of both people and businesses
  2. Fewer government data regulations, and often government involvement in data creation and publishing
  3. Low data purchasing costs

Areas that lack one or more of these essential factors will understandably have less data to work with.

Comparing data collection around the globe

Let’s take for example the United States. The vast majority of U.S. states are well populated, host many industrialized and data-driven organizations, have few data regulations, and – because of the Freedom of Information Act – have plenty of government-created data that can be used as a starting point for commercial offers. This combination results in commercial data being offered at lower prices relative to the rest of the world. Because of this, there are vast amounts of data about the American population at large.

Compare this to rural Africa, which has very low, centralized populations, and lacks a formal and modern workforce. Today, little data—or shall I say, little reliable data—exists about Africa for many of the business applications that U.S.-centric data users have come to expect.

If we look at China, with the largest population in the world and one of the most sophisticated, modern workforces, it is assumed that there is an incredible amount of data, and a strong business demand for that data. However, China has some of the strictest data regulations in the world, making it illegal for organizations outside the country to access and export that data from China.

The U.K., while home to some of the world’s largest data-driven organizations, and some of the most up-to-date, complete, and visually beautiful data, charges a pretty penny for the Crown-copyrighted data, making it difficult for most to access if they have a U.S. price reference in mind.

And new regulations with GDPR are adding to access complexities, as many organizations are still coming to terms with what data can be shared, and in what capacities.

Expectations for data today

We’ve found ourselves at a pivotal time when it comes to data collection, especially as analytics and machine learning fuel more and more business decisions. While our expectations are that the whole world is mapped, counted and described to the same level, the reality is that it isn’t. Describing the world through data is subject to many factors, and with the introduction of GDPR and recent public data security breaches, people, companies, and businesses are becoming more conservative than ever before when it comes to sharing information.

While data has inarguably reshaped the way we visualize the world, our greatest vantage point is still ahead of us. As organizations begin to get into a rhythm of what access to data and compliance now looks like with GDPR, the ways in which we visualize data will certainly change. Along with that, consumers’ understanding of the new regulations will vary. It will take a greater level of comfort when it comes to sharing data before we ever have a completely holistic view of the world.

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