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Why data is the ‘new oil’

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DATA has been described as the ‘new oil’ but are businesses doing enough to leverage this precious resource to grow their top line?

That was the question tackled by Colin Erasmus, Modern Workplace Business Group Lead at Microsoft South Africa during a recent digital conversation with Michelle Dickens, CEO at TPN Credit Bureau and moderated by Arthur Goldstuck, founder of World Wide Worx.

“Used correctly data has real value to the economy. It has the potential to help society achieve better food security, for example. However, businesses need to make better use of their data,” Erasmus said.

Each year the volume of available data increases exponentially. Predictions are that by 2025 there will be ten times more data available than there is today, he added.

The challenge, however, is that many businesses don’t have a clear view of what data they have, how to manage it or how to protect it. For businesses to reap the value of the data they need to understand what data they have, how to classify it and then how to protect it.

There is a growing acknowledgment that data by itself has little value. “Just because there is more data does not make it more powerful,” said Dickens. “It’s how you use it that determines its value.”

The issue of data protection is being complicated by the Protection of Personal Information Act (POPIA) which companies are required to be compliant with by 1 July 2021. Now that compliance with POPIA is required, many companies are starting to realise just how little they understand about what data they have, where it resides or how to protect it, said Dickens.

Pointing out that compliance is not a single point in time but rather a process, Erasmus said there is a growing demand for software packages that allow businesses to better manage their data.

Microsoft recommends an automated process using artificial intelligence. Artificial intelligence, however, needs to be consistent with ethics. “Artificial intelligence can be for good or for bad which means that when we train machines we need to be very cognisant of how we train them to ensure that artificial intelligence is applied from an ethical standpoint,” Erasmus said.

Great power

Significant data breaches in recent years have put the spotlight on how to more effectively secure data. “With great power comes super data breaches,” said Goldstuck, alluding to the Liberty email data breach and the Experian data breach as recent examples. The question is, how should companies be protecting themselves?

As data breaches become more commonplace and sophisticated, companies need to have a data security strategy in place, advised Erasmus. “Security needs to be in three critical areas: people, processes and technology. Tagging data is a good idea to ensure a degree of control.”

He said globally there is a move towards zero trust and giving the right people the right access. Data has also become borderless.

“The definition of an employee has changed. They’re no longer necessarily in the office which means that employees working from home even need to check the security on their router.”

Data protection is something that TPN, a registered credit bureau which is regulated in terms of the National Credit Act, is keenly aware of. The company analyses consumers’ credit scoring in order to identify individual risk.

Dickens said that in an age of a growing number of data breaches, TPN takes data security extremely seriously. “Bad actors are becoming much more sophisticated so it’s vital that businesses work together to safeguard their data.”

Data, correctly utilised, has the potential to be an engine for economic activity. On its own and in isolation, however, it has little value, she said. “It is only when you are able to collect data across industries and sectors and draw comparisons, measure shifts and identify trends that it becomes useful and valuable.”

There is no question that data can provide businesses with a competitive edge, agreed Erasmus. However, at the same time as embracing big data, companies need to make sure they manage their data properly and ethically and put sufficient security features in place given the reality that data breaches continue to become increasingly sophisticated. –

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