Ever since English philosopher and statesman Sir Francis Bacon fired the first warning shot about the power of knowledge more than 400 years ago, the battle over information rights and wrongs has expanded at a phenomenal rate.

Witness the discussions that took place mid-April of this year at the ninth annual AccelerateAB conference in Calgary, where techies from across the province gathered to share their data know-how. Although the theme this year focused on the growing opportunities offered by mashing together and disseminating data, the 650 or so presenters and attendees seemed equally concerned about the increasing levels of responsibility tied to mining and dispersing knowledge.

Photo: Pinstripe Productions

“In my area it’s really become medical science data versus pop culture,” said law professor and Research Director of the Health Law Institute at the University of Alberta Timothy Caulfield. In fact, the World Health Organization (WHO) believes the spread of misinformation is a leading threat to global health, and Caulfied quoted a recent research study that claimed that some 64 per cent of Americans (and, to a lesser extent, Canadians) are gravely concerned about their ability to tell what’s true from what’s not.

“This phenomenon demonstrates an erosion of trust and critical thinking in our society,” said Caulfield. “It distracts and confuses people and can cause financial loss and physical harm.” His call to action included a better regulatory response, increased science literacy communicated through creative means such as movies, more independent scientific work and greater data industry involvement.

Alberta’s Information and Privacy Commissioner Jill Clayton was more concerned about the ethics and legalities behind the gathering, storage and dissemination of data. Pointing to recent Cambridge Analytics and Facebook information breaches, efforts to interfere in the U.S. elections, and the recently released Mueller report, she said the safeguards currently in place are not up to the job. “Are these companies too big to regulate?” she asked. Investigations into the massive ransomware and Equifax breaches, she said, revealed unacceptable safeguards that can destroy a company’s reputation. “It’s time to step up and do something,” she urged. That something could look like the General Data Protection Regulation (GDRP) introduced in Europe last year. Meanwhile, provincial governments are doing their part by appointing privacy commissioners that offer and sometimes require consultation on various levels, she said, but all too often companies don’t consider contacting them.

She urged technology companies to think not just about the law, but also about the ethics of data use. “Just because you can use data in a certain way doesn’t mean you should,” she said. Clayton referred to the outcry over Statistics Canada's collection of Canadians' personal banking information and a smart city data-sharing project on the Toronto waterfront that blew up due to privacy issues.

Data companies involved in developing geospatial applications that can pinpoint where all kinds of things are in the world also carry a heavy burden of responsibility, added keynote speaker Jonathan Neufeld. Pointing to the 4,800 satellites revolving around the earth performing weather, communication, navigation, imaging and data collection tasks, the TECTERRA CEO said data firms need to be aware of both the upside and downside to collecting and using this information: “We need to be aware of what’s possible and whether we should be doing it.”

On the upside, Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, which recently burned to the ground, can be reconstructed using laser scans of every piece of the structure, inside and out, produced by pioneering architectural historian Andrew Tallon and Columbia’s Paul Blaer. Geospatial technology is helping make self-driven cars, dragon-fly-sized military drones and early earthquake warning systems a reality. Using satellite imagery, a geospatial image of the entire globe can be produced once a day and forestry companies can assemble a species catalogue so detailed it identifies individual trees. On the downside are four recent self-driving car fatalities in the U.S. and China and the potential for military personnel to reveal areas of activity simply by using social fitness networks.

Neufeld called on data firms to be particularly diligent when dealing with the oncoming wave of AI applications. At least one machine learning agent - discovered by Stanford and Google researchers a couple of years ago - was discovered to be cheating while transforming aerial images into street maps and back. Programming that rated the application on how well the recreated photograph matched the original caused the AI agent to hide information from its users as the best option for meeting its assigned task. “We need to ensure we properly incentivize AI programs to do what we want them to do, to present the world as it is and then as it could be,” he added.

A report published by McKinsey & Company in 2017 revealed that companies across the globe invested $26 to $39 billion in AI in 2016. Another 2018 McKinsey report estimated AI techniques have the potential to create between $3.5 and $5.8 trillion in value annually across nine business functions in 19 industries for companies around the world.

During an analytics panel discussion, company leaders expressed their concerns about privacy and legislative issues. Rena Tabata, CEO and co-founder of ShareSmart, a company that offers secure mobile information sharing solutions for healthcare professionals, revealed that up to 98 per cent of healthcare professions rely on smart phone apps not intended for medical use. Tabata said her company would like to usher in more open data sets to allow emerging businesses to access information on diseases and drugs, but has no guidelines on how to safeguard against the commercialization of the information. She advocated for data firms to elevate and promote privacy rights that align with legislation such as Europe’s GDPR.

Even though he agreed with the need for more data protection, panelist John Carpenter expressed concerns about intellectual property protection and over-regulation. Admitting that the GDPR prevented his company from expanding its wine subscription service into Europe, the Blacksquare CTO said too much regulation slows down innovation and comes into effect too fast for his company to alter software fast enough. StellarAlgo founder and CEO Vincent Ircandia echoed those concerns and called for more predictability when it comes to new regulation. His company, which specializes in helping sports organizations organize, analyze and leverage data in the North American and European markets, was not ready for the GDPR and, as a result, he said, experienced collateral damage.

Meanwhile, in a quiet room remote from fresh industry pitches and heated discussions around data security, Cynthia van Sundert, executive director of the provincial group A100, which provides assistance to industry up-and-comers and arranges annual conferences like AccelerateAB, admitted the province’s data ecosystem is young compared to that of Toronto or Montreal. Still, she said, the word on the global street is that our pool of new ideas and willingness to push against boundaries is world class. That likely means Alberta’s data masters will continue to work on the front lines of innovation in data - and face all the challenges that come with it.