Data can make our lives better, but proceed with caution

Evidence-based and data-driven are the new buzzwords for decision making in business, government and social service organizations. Who could disagree? What else would responsible leaders use to make their decisions? Gut feel and intuition are definitely out of fashion.

The volume, velocity and variety of data available to organizations are unprecedented. Computing power and storage capacity make it possible to analyze data like never before. And the continued automation and tracking of almost everything—from seeing who is at the front door and monitoring a household’s electricity usage, to following our digital and mobile breadcrumbs—mean that the volume of data will continue to grow exponentially.

So when the questionable practices of Cambridge Analytica came to light recently, there was an immediate reaction sparking a widespread discussion about the collection and use of data. Some see having access to vast amounts of data as an opportunity, while others feel it leaves them exposed. Consumers are nervous, but so are businesses—or at least they should be. Having access to consumer data raises the stakes for organizations that have to carefully consider what they can and should do with information they collect.

For companies like ours that specialize in providing data and analytics, addressing issues of privacy, consumer protection and transparency, along with ensuring delivery of expert methodology, appropriate technology and useful storytelling are always top of mind.

Environics Analytics is the leading provider of data on demographics, lifestyle, mindset, behaviour and media preferences of Canadians to businesses, governments and not for profits. Integrating data from hundreds of authoritative sources, our geek team (which includes more than 100 qualified modellers and statisticians) annually creates privacy-compliant databases, which collectively contain approximately 40,000 variables for one million postal codes. These data are used by more than 2,000 organizations, who combine them with data they collect, to answer their key business questions.

What should not be forgotten in this discussion is how data-driven decision making, when done legally, ethically and responsibly, makes the lives of Canadians better. We’ve helped municipalities develop more efficient delivery of emergency services like fire, ambulance and policing. We also provide critical information that planners at all levels of government need to fund social services, streamline health care, conserve energy, deliver education and more.

Good analytics benefit consumers as well. We all are busy. We want to receive messages and offers about things that are of interest to us, that make our days simpler, more efficient, and help us find products and services easily—while filtering out those that do not. We don’t want to receive targeted ads for the next month in our web searches for a product we bought yesterday. And we want our local merchants to stock products that are tailored to our lifestyle.

When businesses and organizations do good analytics, everyone benefits. So what are “good” data and analytics practices?

Here are five principles from which we never deviate:

  1. Personal data must only be used for the purposes to which the provider consented.
  2. Personal data must not be shared with a third party under any circumstances, unless there was explicit consent to the sharing.
  3. The consent to opt in or opt out as appropriate under the law must be easy to understand and accessible to the provider.
  4. Survey responders have a right to expect their individual responses to be confidential.
  5. Sharing personal data for “academic research” should be governed by licensing agreements and subject to the standards that apply for any other purpose.

Do the known facts in the Facebook and Cambridge Analytica story suggest that these principles were adhered to? Obviously not. It’s no surprise that investors, employees and users are upset.

We are fortunate that Canada has some of the strictest privacy laws in the world. They have resulted in our business adopting additional best practices, which include the following:

  1. We only use data as inputs in our product development that are 100 percent privacy compliant.
  2. Personal information provided to us by clients is used solely for the purposes of their business and is kept in client-specific firewalled locations in secured data centres.
  3. Data we produce at the postal code level are modelled down based on accepted statistical processes, not aggregated from personal data.
  4. We do not compile, keep or use email addresses of Canadians for any data development or for work for our clients.
  5. We are SSAE SOC 1 and SOC 2 and HIPAA compliant—the highest auditable standards for data processing, security and privacy.
  6. We have an Internal Compliance Office that reports to the company’s CEO, which is responsible for data governance, handling, risk, privacy and audit. This office is supported by outside counsel specializing in privacy.
  7. We participate in the Canadian Marketing Association’s Privacy and Ethics Committee, as well as with other international privacy organizations.
  8. These same practices have been applied to our U.S. business offerings despite the fact that up until now the U.S. laws have been less strict.
  9. We are conversant with the requirements of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) coming in the E.U. and ensure that our compliance policies for Canada and the U.S. are consistent with the GDRP.
  10. Our employees are trained extensively on the requirements related to protecting our data assets. We constantly review and update these policies, practices and processes.

Does the news about the Facebook and Cambridge Analytica breach hurt the analytics industry? We say no. It highlights the differences between firms collecting or providing data and analytics in a responsible way and those who are not obeying the laws or employing best practices.

Data and analytics are the fuel of good service provision and a competitive economy. Citizens and consumers have a right to expect organizations will ensure their data will be kept private and used responsibly to their benefit and for the intended purpose. Despite the unfortunate situation leading to it, this is a public discussion that is welcome—in fact, overdue.

Jan Kestle is the Founder, President and CEO of Environics Analytics, Canada’s leading data analytics and marketing services company. She is an expert in using statistics and mathematics to help solve business challenges and has been a leader in the marketing information industry for more than 40 years.