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Data wants to be free and Microsoft is arranging a breakout

Microsoft calls for open data to spur AI development prevent data divides

Posted: By Kathleen Maher 05.01.20

With all that’s going on right now, doesn’t it seem strange sometimes to see the world is still spinning around out there? But, while we’re locked up information data is flowing all around us and creating larger information clouds with every tick of a clock.

Microsoft has just kicked off the Open Data Campaign which calls free access to data for AI research all around the world and the company warns of a digital divide that threatens to lock up data behind the borders of powerful countries and rich companies.

The exploitation of big data has transformed the business of companies worldwide including Adobe, Amazon, IBM, Microsoft, and many others. We’re finding that the companies we’ve been following for years in the CAD market are transforming themselves from software providers into big data companies. Dassault, for instance, has used its position as a leading tool for design and engineering to transform itself into an information technology company and has added considerable firepower to its Life Sciences business with the acquisition of Medidata, which builds cloud-based clinical trial technology.

Siemens and Bentley have teamed up to build tools for digital twins in the process industry, managing huge amounts of data that provides information with value far beyond the challenge of efficiently managing an energy or chemical plant. The GIS information that ESRI and its clients collect and maintain is useful on every level including understanding climate trends, emergency response in cities, population growth, migration, etc. In fact, ESRI’s tools are being used to track the progress of the Covid-19 virus.

The companies racing to exploit the world’s data have different ideas about what to do with the data, how to share the data, and very basically, who owns the data. Microsoft argues that a standardized approach for data collection and organization will better enable organizations to use and share data.

Work on this front has been happening long before Microsoft's announcement this April. In 2018, Adobe, SAP, and Microsoft announced the Open Data Initiative (ODI) and pledged to work together to develop a common data framework to be used across their platforms. Their goal is to eliminate data silos and give their customers the ability to build better customer experience management (CXM) applications. When the companies introduced the plan at Microsoft’s Ignite conference, SAP’s CEO at that time Bill McDermott said that information gets more valuable as its opened up and used.

Since that announcement, the three companies have deepened their collaboration and are building tools for interoperability. They are enlisting new partners and significantly HP and Dell have expressed interest in the ODI.

Microsoft is not satisfied.

In his introduction of the Open Data campaign, Microsoft President Brad Smith talked about the dangerous potential of the Data Divide. It’s been estimated, he says that the information generated by the internet each day is flowing to only 100 companies. The ability put AI and machine learning to work,  has been restricted to companies with the expertise and money to spend on development. This work is a long way from being a packaged capability available broadly and to SMBs. But, Microsoft argues there’s a virtuous circle that needs to be built so that the more research that is being done, the better it gets, and new insights are gained.

 

Smith says, “we believe everyone can benefit from opening, sharing and collaborating around data to make better decisions, improve efficiency, and even help tackle some of the world’s most pressing societal challenges.”

But just as important Smith believes there is much to be lost if the digital divide is allowed to grow. He says that there is already the potential for 70% of the value to be gained with AI development to flow to only two countries, the U.S. and China.

Microsoft’s announcement includes a set of ground rules that the company will follow and proposes for other companies in the business of data, and the company outlined 3 steps to kick off the campaign:

  • First, Microsoft is publishing new principles that will guide how Microsoft itself approaches sharing our data with others.
  • Second, Microsoft is committing to take action by developing 20 new collaborations built around shared data by 2022. This includes work with leading organizations in the open data movement like the Open Data Institute and The Governance Lab (GovLab) at the New York University Tandon School of Engineering. And we’ll seek to lead by example by making our Microsoft social impact initiatives “open by default,” beginning with sharing data on broadband access from our Airband initiative and combining it with data from others to help accelerate improvements in broadband connectivity.
  • Finally, the company is investing in the essential assets that will make data sharing easier, including the required tools, frameworks, and templates.

 

Microsoft’s decision to announce its campaign while the United States and other countries are deep in lockdown due to Covid-19 pandemic underscores the need for more and better research immediately and Microsoft says the same kind of unified effort is going to be required for related problems such as climate change. The company’s statement on their web page says, “if ever there was a time to accelerate the world’s efforts around open data, it is now. We hope our steps today can contribute to these efforts. We’re committed to the cause, and to learning from and working with others.”

Microsoft also announced five principals they are using as a guide for opening and sharing data:

  • Open – We will work to make data that is relevant to important social problems as open as possible, including by contributing open data ourselves
  • Usable – We will invest in creating new technologies and tools, governance mechanisms and policies to make data more usable for everyone
  • Empowering – We will help organizations generate value from their data according to their choices, and develop their AI talent to use data effectively and independently
  • Secure – We will employ security controls to ensure data collaboration is operationally secure where it is desired
  • Private – We will help organizations to protect individuals’ privacy in data-sharing collaborations that involve personally identifiable information

 

Microsoft says the overriding requirement is that they and the companies working with them on this campaign have to strive to make data more usable. And for that, companies will have to make gather and categorize data in a standardized way

We’re seeing this happen in all the companies we work with. No, companies are not flinging open the doors to their data but they are recognizing the need to organize data according to standards and they’re agreeing that the ability for data to be shared across corporate, organizational and even governmental boundaries has the potential to make that data much more valuable.

It’s pretty easy to get groups to agree that silos are bad, and not so easy to convince them that their silos are the ones that need to be opened up. JPR is right there with them actually. It’s a lot easier for us to understand what data to keep behind walls than it is to immediately see the value of opening up data.

In a way, that part is less important. Microsoft is saying let’s take the first steps, gather and organize data, start sharing where it makes sense, and as that happens organizations will find the more they share the more they gain in terms of insight and value.

So, OK boomer, doesn’t all this remind you of the early days of the Internet? The argument over the freedom of data rages on, but it’s becoming more personal than ever. This is us they’re talking about and not some refrigerator manual, or company policy document.

The Open Data Initiative grew out of the “experience platforms” that’s been taking shape over the last decade and a half. Adobe, Microsoft, SAP and their partners wanted to share data about their customers to improve their deliverables. We can at least hope they were also motivated by the desire to protect their customers. At least they said they were.

Stewart Brand said data wants to be free, what more often happens is that data is pretty much going to run loose with little supervision or guidance. This idea that companies and organizations can get together to help free up information, and also maintain its quality and usefulness, seems a better idea than continue on the trajectory that leads to a digital divide that Smith sees ahead. And, it is like the early days of the internet in that the best way to build it is to give everyone the hammer and nails and the power of oversight.

Artificial Intelligence is powerful and therefore dangerous. It’s important to try and heal the data divide now and open up data so that the insights gained can be shared, analyzed, adjusted, and extended. It’s not up to Microsoft to do it. There are other players trying to build their own spheres of influence including Amazon, Salesforce, and Google. It’s good to have Microsoft with its support for openness and collaboration in the fight.