You don’t have to look too far to see the negative aspects of data. Issues from privacy concerns to identity fraud are rarely far from the headlines – and these are just a glimpse of the perils that come from our ‘Surveillance Society’. These concerns are important. But let’s also celebrate data and the wonders it has done for the common good.

After attending the Big Bang Data exhibition at the Somerset House the other week, I was fascinated by some of the creative displays of data visualisation. A selection of artists and designers showcased data’s ominous side, such as the vulnerabilities of leaving digital trails of information behind our every move on the internet and how we freely supply information about us publicly, which can easily be exploited. But there were also many artists who championed data and highlighted how positively it has – and is – changing society.

The growth of data-driven platforms enabling individuals to collaborate has bolstered the sharing of knowledge. Case in point: Safecast, an open-source radiation monitor, founded in response to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant accident, is developed by open data. The original device was chunky and unable to run without a laptop plugged in. As a result of it being volunteer-centred, individuals contributed to improving it, resulting in a smaller, lighter and mobile device. The device was reliant on people inputting data.

The Open Data movement is another example of the power of people coming together. Widely supported by journalists, it provides people with data that can be freely utilised and made meaningful. The exhibition demonstrated how the creative communication of data can raise awareness to political and socio-economic issues and how technology is reshaping 21st-century democracy with examples such as the Icelandic e-democracy, Podemos and the Open Ministry.

Presenting data in interesting methods transforms something strange into something easily understood and appreciated. This reminded me somewhat of the communications industry; in a way we are set similar tasks – taking complex thoughts (or data) from experts and adapting it into a compelling story for readers to engage with. Another similarity we share is having a bad rep.

Data is changing our world – albeit at times for the worse, but also for the wonderfully and insightfully good. I think it’s our role, as PR professionals, to help shape data’s rebrand by communicating and advocating all of the many benefits data offers our society.

This is the first of a two-part series, part two can be found here.

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