Datafication refers to the fact that we are looking at more and more things and using technology to render them into a data format.1 Simply said, it is about taking previously invisible process/activity and turning it into data, that can be monitored, tracked, analyzed and optimized through analytics. Whereas digitization has been a process taking place over many decades now, datafication is a relatively new phenomenon. The difference being that whereas digitization was about converting information into a digital format, datafication is more about the interaction between the digital domain and physical objects, processes, and environments. With mobile computing and the internet of things, we now have all kinds of sensors in our environments and we are starting to convert all sorts of things into a data format. There are many examples, from putting sensors on a bridge to monitor structural integrity, monitoring parking spaces, performing a 3D scan of an object to print it out later, to measuring the activity levels of a person for health.
One specific example is General Electric that is in the process of converting themselves from an industrial company to what they call a digital industrial company where they create a digital twin for every one of their products2. Their physical technologies are now surrounded by sensors and controllers that can pull a massive amount of data from a jet engine, from an MRI scan, from a gas turbine, or wind turbine which all provide real-time data about themselves that goes into a virtual model of the system that is unique to that machine. This digital twin is a cloud-based virtual image of the physical asset maintained throughout the lifecycle and easily accessible. Within seconds of a new wind turbine going into operations tens of thousands of data points are created.
Likewise more and more of our social activities are being rendered into a digital format. Facebook datafize our friendships, Linkedin datafize our professional accomplishments and twitter datafize our thoughts, Google maps datafize out location. A multitude of different technologies are now available that help individuals monitor and measure things that were previously difficult or impossible to quantify. Everything from how much energy and water one uses, what your food purchasing habits are, the air quality of your neighborhood, when you are awake and asleep, knowing when you are stressed or what road you select to drive to work, how you brush your teeth. We create data every time we talk on the phone, SMS, watch a video, withdraw money from an ATM, use a credit card, or even walk past a security camera. All this can now be measured, quantified and compared.
Data comes from the Latin term meaning literally ‘something given,’ it is a set of quantities, characters, or symbols, an assumption or premise from which inferences may be drawn, it is the basis of reasoning or calculation. Data represent discrete units of information and thus we are always isolating some aspect of the phenomenon and freezing it. Data is always a slice of reality, we are chopping the world up into little bits and taking that information as in some way complete. This makes the data portable, it can be taken from one context and brought into another. All data in the real world exist within an integrated context, no matter how extensive our gathering of data it will only ever be able to capture a partial representation of the system and in so doing separate it from its overall context. Data is always incomplete but the discrete nature of data makes it quantifiable and thus accessible to formal quantitative methods of analysis. As such data as a general concept refers to the fact that some existing information or knowledge is represented or coded in some form suitable for better usage or processing. Whereas data and information have always existed all around us what datafication does is make that information available for analysis with computers.
The primary use of data is for manipulation within computer programs, which are formal systems. Thus with datafication, we are taking the informal everyday world and converting it into a virtual structured format that can be used within a formal system. Whereas previously with digitalization we converted many forms of information that were already in a structured and quantifiable format into a digital form for them to be accessible within individual computer programs. What we are doing today is building platforms that operate as computers but on the macro level. A computer is a system that manipulates data according to a set of instructions, whereas previously this data and instructions were within an individual computer, now with cloud computing online platforms are the computers, with their algorithms running in data centers they take in data about people and things and analyze it to create an output.
A platform society is where our technologies and social lives are increasingly channeled through online platforms.3 Our informal lives and our engineered systems become moved on to formal platforms, whether this is dating websites, car sharing platforms, or healthcare. They all require that we datafy the things in our world and our lives and input that data to the platform which then acts on it; analyzing it to create insight, make decisions, match and coordinate different systems. As a consequence of moving ever more of our systems of organization to these automated platforms, we begin to increasingly understand and manage organizations and things via sets of data points, as an ever more complete information picture of who we are and our engineered environments is compiled in these information systems. This is the current journey advanced economies are on; turning everything into data so that it can be brought into these platforms, these formal systems and processed. However, a lot of the problems we are going to have later on down the line are going to really come from this incompleteness of data. Datafication will unavoidably omit many features of the world, distort others and decontextualize events.
This process of datafication enables us to change the very foundations upon which we make decisions for organizing society and economy, instead of people making best effort guesses in a context of incomplete information it takes us into a world of decisions being made by algorithms based upon huge amounts of data which coordinate the platforms that increasingly mediate every aspect of our lives. This has profound long-term consequences. It begins to challenge some of the fundamental mechanisms upon which society has always depended upon – from the basis of the techniques used in the scientific method to how the economy is measured and structured.
1. YouTube. (2018). The Birth of Datafication. [online] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FUj9Ug5kGHM [Accessed 8 Feb. 2018].
2. Digital, G. and Twin?, W. (2017). What is a Digital Twin?. [online] GE Digital. Available at: https://www.ge.com/digital/industrial-internet/digital-twin [Accessed 8 Feb. 2018].
3. YouTube. (2018). #AoIR2016: Opening Keynote “The Platform Society” by José van Dijck. [online] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-ypiiSQTNqo [Accessed 8 Feb. 2018].