Few commodities are at once so plentiful yet so valuable as data.
In fact, data—all 17 zettabytes of it—has become the most valuable building block of the digital economy, asserted Oracle CEO Mark Hurd during a TEDx talk to students at Wake Forest University on February 20. It's what land was to the agrarian economies of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and capital assets (factories, machinery) were to the industrialists of the twentieth century, he said.
The astonishing thing isn't just how massive the volume of data has become, but also how fast that massive volume keeps increasing each year. Data generated by companies, governments, and individuals is now growing at a clip of around 40% a year, putting the total volume from those three sources at a projected 44 zettabyes by 2020, Hurd said. That's 44,000,000,000,000,000 megabytes of data.
And that growth could accelerate further if the so-called Internet of Things takes off to the extent many predict. With sensors attached to roads and railroad tracks, embedded in oil wells and wind turbines, buried in crop fields, placed on and in human beings, and connected to myriad other "things," the data-collection possibilities are almost endless. It's not implausible that the IoT could generate yet another 44 zettabyes of data by 2020, Hurd said.
But those gargantuan volumes are of little use to anyone unless we can analyze the right data at the right time, turning it from raw material into a precious gem: insight. Like identifying that critical oil drill part that's about to fail, the parcel of soybean field that needs watering, the package of food that's about to spoil, the traffic that's going to back up, or the diabetic who needs sugar.
If capital still ruled the day, steelmakers, telecom carriers, ship builders, power generators, and miners would be among the most valuable companies on earth. Instead, data-intensive companies such as Google, Facebook, and Walmart fetch the biggest market caps—again, not because they collect the most data, but because they excel at turning data into competitive advantage.
Even capital-intensive giant GE sees its future as a "digital industrial company," selling services based on the data it collects and analyzes from the jet engines, power and water systems, healthcare equipment, and other machines it makes. In a recent survey led by Capgemini, 61% of C-suite executives agreed that data is now a revenue driver in its own right, becoming almost as valuable as the products and services their companies sell.
But as valuable as we think all of that data is, the bad guys think so too, putting an absolute premium on information security. Cybercrime costs the worldwide economy about $450 billion annually, according to consultancy Hamilton Place Strategies, up nearly 200% in five years. The stakes have never been higher.
So we're at the proverbial crossroads. The next 10 years could be the most exciting in history, as companies, healthcare providers, academic researchers, charities, police departments, government agencies, and other organizations analyze data to serve customers and citizens better and produce extraordinary innovations. Or the next decade could descend into a free-for-all.
Hurd told the students at Wake Forest he's extremely optimistic that the first scenario will play out. We have the technology tools, encryption chief among them, to keep business data secure, especially in the data centers of expert cloud service providers. Governments are starting to show that they will get better at this over time. Even consumers are more careful about sharing their data.
We better keep finding ways of putting this incredibly valuable asset to greater use, while minimizing the downside. Our economic future depends on it.