Data as gold: How to make gold serve its greatest purpose

The narrative about data as gold has gained more strength after a recently-revealed coronavirus research scandal rocked the medical and scientific research and development community.

For the 21st Century Enterprise, data is the most significant intangible asset, powering new technologies and an ecosystem of third-parties providing everything-as-a-service. But these approaches are only as strong as the underlying data feeding them.

Data is the new gold, but how to make it serve the best purpose?

To make a strong case for the data as gold statement, we need to look at three different uses of data.

  1. Cambridge Analytica data breach with Facebook users
  2. Manufactured data as a political tool
  3. Decentralized data to redeem the lives of children

The data privacy scandal that shook the world

The Facebook–Cambridge Analytica data breach, which took place in 2018, triggered the most significant privacy awakening of the 21st century. The scandal exposed that the world’s most extensive communications platform sought and exploited data of 50 million American users, without permission, for the purpose of political campaigning with the help of a London-based IT consulting firm, Cambridge Analytica.

In 2012, when Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg affirmed the world that the user data leaked to third party apps should hardly be a concern to anybody given the lack of potential use case for the same, little did he know that six years later, he would be making a court appearance to defend himself against this very reason. 

The Facebook–Cambridge Analytica privacy scandal, unarguably the most publicized data privacy scandal, unveiled the dark truth behind the grand mission and questionable practices of social media channels. And although it made a strong argument for data as gold, it showed the world how it meant disaster if it fell into the wrong hands.

Manipulating data as gold to get the miracle drug

In the second instance, we see the power of data in the midst of the COVID drug research brouhaha again. The coronavirus drug research scandal couldn’t have come at a worse time. With over six million confirmed cases across the globe and the United States, alone, losing over 100,000 lives to this deadly disease so far, the only foolproof way out of this hellhole, is finding a reliable vaccine.

On Thursday, several major publication authors withdrew their work from The Lancet and the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM), rated among the best known peer-reviewed medical journals, after a small-scale healthcare analytics firm, Surgisphere, acted suspiciously.

When the COVID-19 outbreak gained a foothold, turned the world economy upside down, and overtaxed the healthcare systems, researchers everywhere set out a frantic search for a drug that might have a role to play in preventing the spread of this virus. Thus began the rise in popularity of an anti-malarial drug called the hydroxychloroquine (HCQ), happily endorsed by Indian pharmaceutical companies and widely publicized by President Trump.

COVID-19: A hotbed of red flags and scams

While there were previous studies that indicated HCQ’s inability to improve clinical outcomes in patients, the argument was finally knocked down by Lancet-published research on May 21. Taking into account key health indicators from around 96,000 patients from over 670 hospitals around the globe, HCQ’s credibility as a potential COVID-19 vaccine component dealt a severe blow when the results indicated no signs of improvement among its patients. If anything, it increased the risks around cardiac arrests.

The study raised many eyebrows and finally resulted in the Surgisphere being asked to make its third-party reviewers public. The firm refused to share any details, and citing the confidentiality clause, was reluctant to be audited. It was later revealed that none of the hospitals were, in fact, part of this review with Surgisphere’s founder, Sapan Desai, found to be in the midst of battling three malpractice lawsuits.

HCQ’s short-lived yet widely broadcasted chance at success was eventually a result of manufactured data used as a political tool. And as Desai himself proclaimed in one of his papers published back in 2013, it can be a severe fraud cause if researchers and scientists use it to base their highly impactful studies.

So, while COVID-19 has been the breeding ground for countless fraudulent activities, scams, and malpractices, one tends to question the tool that forms the very foundation of these misconducts, and that is data. Although the data as gold narrative has gained prominence in an internet-savvy world, it is also the root cause of the scandals that question the fiduciary basis. 

Blockchain for data management

We cannot dwell on the fact that whoever has the gold has the power, and the same applies to data. But there is a greater power than manufactured data. And blockchain for data management seems to be the right solution.

A third proposed use of data is decentralizing its access to the blockchain. According to Traci Gusher, a partner at a data analytics and artificial intelligence company, an organization, at any given time, is home to at least 80 percent of underutilized and unstructured data that hinders problem-solving and analytical insights.

The very argument surrounding data as gold has gathered strength, but most clients do not know how to leverage it. Modern-day organizations are sitting on astronomical amounts of data, not knowing how to make the most of it to scale business operations, transform consumer experiences, and expand to newer markets. And if all these data on the blockchain can be put to good use, the world will indeed be a better, safer place.

It’s not just for the scientific research community; government agencies, educational and financial institutions can explore this technology to instill trust through an immutable and decentralized digital ledger and prevent misuse of data that eventually lead to data breach and manufactured data-related scandals. 

Power of the blockchain ecosystem

Mitch Rankin, English Forward co-founder, shines a light further where students need protection not only from the theft of their personal data but also, theft of their future opportunities. 

Quoting an excerpt from a student’s diary, Rankin enlightens his readers on how data theft can potentially wreak havoc in a student’s life when he or she realizes that years of hard work can go down the drain if data is not recorded or stored correctly. And as he rightly puts it,

The possibilities are endless on the blockchain ecosystem as the problems we are seeking answers for.

Blockchain technology, with its ability to enable networked public services, drastically improves the management of records, associating it with rightful ownership and safeguarding critical data. It makes it easier for individuals and agencies to use crucial public-sector data while maintaining the authenticity of this information. 

In hindsight…

One of the primary reasons for the COVID drug debacle was the absence of trusted information among individuals, reviewers, government agencies, suppliers, and manufacturers, who chose to overplay their hand and spoilt their chances at success with excessive confidence in unauthorized data. 

Everybody loves gold. And referring to data as gold does offer a sneak peek into how businesses today can unlock real value from non-conventional assets. But when the invaluable becomes the possession of the greedy, disasters such as the Facebook–Cambridge Analytica scandal and coronavirus drug research fiasco will follow.

Without a systematic way to start and keep data clean, bad data will happen. — Donato Diorio