Data Isn’t the New Oil; It’s Nuclear Energy (Waste)

This is a pretty spicy take for a brand-new data analyst I’ll admit; but hear me out because there are some important considerations for you to think about. Comparing data, the lifeblood of our industry, to nuclear fuel and waste might seem like an outrageous suggestion but I think you might find many uncanny similarities. Nuclear energy is produced by first mining uranium from the earth, enriching and refining it until it is fit for purpose; smashing it together in ways that create energy. Then when we are done with it dealing with and storing the by-products because there’s no real way of getting rid of it. We hang on to our nuclear waste, we secure it, because even though we have extracted all we can from it, it is still dangerous because any leaks could be catastrophic. Oh, also, there are groups out there working hard to weaponise it too…

You see where I’m going with this right?

Extracting Data

Google extracted data from the world like we extract Uranium from the ground, they refined it, and they used it to power what has become one of the largest and most powerful companies in the world.

You might have heard the popular adage, that data is the new oil; the hot commodity of the Information Age. I must admit, for a large part of the 21st Century that has been true. Companies like Google pioneered the search engine so much so that they turned a typo into a household verb (A googol is a big number, to google is to search for something on the web). Google perfected the art of crawling web pages and generating value from data, we may have “Asked Jeeves” or whipped out our Encyclopedia Britannica before, but they weren’t leaving us feeling very lucky anymore after Sergey and Larry burst onto the scene. Google extracted data from the world like we extract Uranium from the ground, they refined it, and used it to power what has become one of the largest and most powerful companies in the world.

Refining Data

The raw materials for data and nuclear energy are not valuable on their own, they require enrichment and refinement. Credit bureaus, like Equifax and Experian, are masters at collecting messy and disorganised data from companies and public records, distilling all of it into a simple number from 0-1000 (or 1200) that quantifies how responsible you are, and how attractive you are to businesses. Quantifying and minimising risk is the lifeblood of so many industries, and companies will pay bureaus large amount of money to manage it so they don’t have to.

Smashing It Together

Few companies are as good as Facebook (or Google) at tracking you across all your activities both on and offline, combining it all together to create a unified profile from different properties (e.g. Facebook, Instagram, and Facebook Pixels). Nuclear fusion works by forcing together atoms to release energy; smashing together data can work in a similar way. The modern data industry is built on finding new and novel ways of mixing data together.

Storing (Leaking) Your Used Data

Optus is managing the fallout from their massive data breach that exposed the data of nearly 2.1 million customers. Although the hacker allegedly deleted their copy, we know that once the cat (data) is out of the bag, it’s impossible to get back in there (delete it).

Few scenarios strike more fear than the thought of nuclear fallout or the possible impact of nuclear waste. Storing the spent by-products of nuclear energy is an unavoidable, and expensive task in the lifecycle of energy production. Secure storage of data, especially personally identifiable information (PII), is essential to maintaining corporate integrity and trust amongst your customers. At the time of writing (October 2022), Optus is managing the fallout from their massive data breach that exposed the data of nearly 2.1 million customers. Although the hacker allegedly deleted their copy, we know that once the cat (data) is out of the bag, it’s impossible to get back in there (delete it). The Australian Privacy Act is the principal piece of legislation protecting the handling of personal information, which was originally published in 1988 (with significant amendments in 2014 and 2017). Though it, and other legislation like it around the world, has been around for some time, they have largely proved ineffectual at preventing large data breaches from occurring.

Weaponising Data

Data is used both to target and inform mobilisations on prospects, customers, and even competitors.

Finally, data has become a powerful weapon used frequently by both nation states and Silicon Valley unicorns alike. Political parties too are notoriously effective at using both primary and secondary data sources to maximise their impact and achieve their goals. Data is used both to target and inform mobilisations on prospects, customers, and even competitors. If you let me indulge in this narrative, if advertisers and marketeers were mercenaries, companies such as Facebook and Google are the arms dealers. Both companies provide powerful tools to segment and target users, so they buy more trinkets and widgets, or so they vote a reality tv star into the oval office. Whether the goal is to make you spend an extra dollar, or an extra minute on a platform, data is as powerful as a barracks or a nuclear warhead.

Final Thoughts

If you’ve made it this far, I appreciate you indulging in these musings of mine on the power, importance, and sensitivity of data in the modern age. My intention wasn’t to alarm, or scare you off, but instead to appreciate the responsibilities we’ve been given as stewards of the data we manage. Have respect for the data you work with, as if you were a nuclear technician, because maybe the stakes aren’t so different after all…

Well, that’s a stretch, but it’s at least something to think about.

This post was inspired by this article on The Guardian Personal data is as hot as nuclear waste, as well as the popular quote “data is the new oil” attributed to mathematician Clive Humby.

Daniel Lawson
Author: Daniel Lawson

Right off the bat I can tell you that I’m not your average data analyst. I’ve spent most of my career running my own business as a photographer and videographer, with a sprinkling of Web Development and SEO work as well. My approach to life and work is very T-shaped, in that I have a small set of specific skills complemented by a very broad range of interests; I like to think of myself as a dedicated non-specialist. Data Analytics, and Programming, started as a hobby that quickly grew into a passion. The more I learned the more I looked for opportunities to pull, manipulate, and join data from disparate sources in my life. I learned to interact with REST APIs for services I used, personal data from services I use like Spotify, and health data captured by my devices. I learned SQL to create and query databases, as well as analyse SQLite files containing my iMessages and Photos data on my Mac. Every technique I learned opened up more possibilities; now I’m hooked and there’s no turning back. Learn More About Me: https://danlsn.com.au