Information Governance Takes the Stage

Many organizations are hiring data scientists, but do they also need information ethicists?

Program Director, Analytics Platform Marketing, IBM

At Information On Demand (IOD) 2013 in November, information governance was a subject of conversation at every venue. IBM executives spoke about it in their keynotes. Clients talked about it in breakout sessions. And then there were conversations over lunch, queries in the EXPO, deep-dive discussions in the demo center, and chats at birds-of-a-feather get-togethers and meet-ups. And there was even discourse during the endless walks through the hallways, up the escalators, and yes, across the vast gaming casinos of Las Vegas.

Information governance is certainly not a new topic, so why did there seem to be increased interest at IOD 2013?


NSA introduces metadata to the masses

One reason for the elevated interest is the recent and pervasive news about the US National Security Agency monitoring metadata attached to the conversations of ordinary citizens and world leaders. Suddenly, metadata has become a term at least partially understood by people not at all involved in information technology, and questions about the protection of both data and metadata have taken on new meaning.

Another reason is the emergence of technology that makes it possible for businesspeople to have easier access to the data that just might help them make important business decisions. Barriers to access are being removed, and with ready access to data come questions about it: Where did it originate? Who else has seen it? Who has changed it? Can it be trusted? And more specifically, can it be trusted for this purpose only—financial reporting, perhaps—or for that purpose only—say, targeted marketing? These questions and their answers are critical to data governance.

Yet another reason is the ascendancy of big data, which has moved beyond technical journals to become the topic of features in The Wall Street Journal1 and The New York Times.2 For both business and technical people, it is easy to see the potential for big data—from enhanced understanding of customers to the enablement of scientific breakthroughs based on analysis of machine data. At the same time, questions are being raised about what data means, who should see it, and how it can be used.


Ethicists evaluate data use for the ick factor

A related question about how data should be used has also received increasing attention in 2013. Data breaches—when private data is essentially stolen from an organization acting as the data’s steward—are an issue that rarely sparks disagreement about the underlying ethics. We don’t hear arguments that a third party should be able to tap into the data held by a credit card company, for example, and use it to steal from consumers.

But what should an organization do with the data it holds for legitimate business reasons? Does the fact that a company has data from a mobile device signaling the exact location of a customer mean that acting on that information and pushing location-based advertising to the client is okay? Some individuals may appreciate the special offer, while others may say that it raises the ick factor. John Kropf has suggested that organizations should have “information ethicists” to help them ask and answer questions about how and when using information is appropriate.3

At IOD, questions about the ethics associated with data access and data use were overheard on more than one occasion. For example, the topic got airplay during an evening meet-up for data scientists, and at a breakout session focused on protecting customer data stored in nonproduction environments at a health insurance company.

In informal gatherings and formal sessions, it was clear that while increasing numbers of organizations are identifying data governance as an imperative, the starting points for governance are as varied as ever. Sessions on information security, lifecycle management, information understanding, and master data management (MDM) all attracted audiences grappling with questions about when and how best to start down the governance path, who should lead, and who should engage in the process.

One particularly hot topic was the avoidance of data breaches. Another session looked at data lineage and its role in enabling trust in data integration in the banking sector. Other sessions focused on protecting customer data in both production and nonproduction systems. And one reviewed the journey to sensitive data management. The voyage in this discussion began with discovery of the sensitive data that then needed to be managed—a growing requirement in a world of big data.

A presentation by W.W. Grainger, an industrial supply concern, focused on its commitment to customer information—including customer intimacy, customer experience, and customer contract terms. For W.W. Grainger, the journey to trusted information has included lots of communication, a strong IT and business partnership, and the management of master data. A key takeaway was “governance is enterprise-wide, not project-centric.”4

In the lifecycle management domain, the conversation centered around the balance between keeping data long enough for compliance purposes, and not keeping it so long that it becomes a liability and an unnecessary cost to the organization. A bank outlined a data health maintenance approach that helps the organization control data growth, manage compliance and legal risk, and keep costs under control through smart management across the information lifecycle.


Imperatives that now compel governance

In addition to all the reasons cited here, there certainly are others that are propelling data governance to the top tier of enterprise priority lists for 2014. Are there any imperatives for your industry or organization that will lead you to move ahead with a data governance initiative? If so, please share your thoughts in the comments.

1 How big data is changing the whole equation for business,” by Steven Rosenbush and Michael Totty, The Wall Street Journal, March 10, 2013.
2 Compendium: Big data,” by Alex Howard, The New York Times, December 2012.
3 Privacy trends, lessons learned from breaches, and understanding the ‘ick factor’ in big data analysis,” by John Kropf, Corporate Counsel Advisory, LexisNexis, September 2013.
4 “Grainger’s trusted customer information journey and information governance,” by Nicole Kannegieter and Mark Bliss, W.W. Grainger, Inc. presentation at IBM IOD 2013, November 2013.

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