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Big Data? For Germany that train has long since departed

Interview with Andreas Weigend, Social Data Expert and Author

European Business: Mr. Weigand, Big Data is a major economic driver. Nevertheless, it seems that Europe is lagging behind in its use.

Andreas Weigend: That is correct. Let us take Germany as an example. The same question always comes up when we talk about Big Data: What is the worst that can happen with our data and how can we prevent its misuse? When I board a plane and cross the pond to the USA, they ask a very different question about the same topic, namely: What happens when Big Data can be used freely? How can it best be used? Europe sees only the risks while America sets its sights on the potential opportunities. These are two fundamentally opposed ways of looking at the question, whose origins are in part historical.

"Europe sees only the risks while America sets its sights on the potential opportunities." Andreas WeigendSocial Data Expert and Author

European Business: Nevertheless, many companies here look at companies like Amazon and Ali Baba and the huge advantages they enjoy thanks to data mining with something approaching envy. Is our economy being left behind in the digital race or can we still catch up?

Andreas Weigend: No. I don’t think the gap can be bridged and that is a real shame. Here in Germany, we prioritize the “right to be forgotten” (the right to insist that personal data be removed) over the “right to be remembered”. The train has long departed and that can be seen from the most popular apps: Tripadvisor for travel, the Whatsapp messaging service – both of them are American companies that came of age with big data. Think also of Amazon and Apple. The market and end customers have voted for America.

European Business: You describe data as the most important resource of our time. Why is that?

Andreas Weigend: Let us take a comparison between data and oil to illustrate the differences between resources. Oil is a limited natural resource while data is constantly being generated. The production of oil results in a win-lose scenario in the market. When the price of crude rises, producers earn more. However, the rest of the market pays the price. This is not the case for data and that is exactly the basis for the success of Google, Facebook and the rest. The structural difference lies in the fact that they use data to create win-win scenarios for everyone. That is why the founder of Amazon, Jeff Bezos, is the richest man in the world, because he always manages to create win-win scenarios on the Amazon platform. That is why data is not just an important raw material; it is a completely different type of raw material.

"When you look at the really big companies in the industry, they are all data refineries." Andreas WeigendSocial Data Expert and Author

European Business: This raw material also plays a central role in your book “Data for the people”. What is the core message of the book?

Andreas Weigend: The English subtitle is How to Make Our Post-Privacy Economy Work for You”. Despite this it is still important to have some control over personal information. To achieve this, I have devised six privacy rights which can also be adapted to companies. One of them, for example is “to embrace transparency” – a plea for more transparency in the use of data. Companies used to make money from raising barriers to data access and guaranteeing themselves sole access. These exclusive data sets were then sold on at a commensurately high price. This business is no longer as lucrative. When you look at the really big companies in the industry, they are all data refineries

European Business: If the sale of data is no longer economically relevant, how do data mills make a profit?

Andreas Weigend: The core activity of a data refinery is to enable and simplify access to data and to create their own data products. I see the value of the data in the extent to which it is helpful in the customer’s decision-making process, regardless whether they are B2B or B2C customers. When I want to book a flight, I look at offers from various booking agents. I book and pay for the best offer. Companies are prepared to pay for this decision-making aid in one way or another, be it through the exchange of data or monetary compensation.

European Business: You suggest opening a Facebook account for babies before they are born. What is the reasoning behind this?

Andreas Weigend: If we are realistic, the baby was certainly online long before it was born. Family and friends are sure to have taken pictures of the pregnant woman and shared them online. If I set up a user account for the baby right from the beginning, I can control the flow of information and make it possible later on for the child to be active themselves. That is surely better than merely being the subject of a picture posted by someone else.

Interview: Markus Büssecker
Foto: Social Data Lab

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