Why we need a Declaration

Few could have imagined at the start of the 19th century the advances and disruptions of steam power, and the industrial revolution to come. Equally unpredictable were the innovations at the beginning of the 20th century: powered flight, mass production, telecommunications. The first 20 years of the 21st century are revealing yet another revolution – powered by data, and the systems and software that underpin it.

Our ability to create, collect, transmit, analyse and store data about the world and our everyday interactions in it has opened up new possibilities for employment, business and public services, and offers potential solutions to many of the complex problems we face. But these opportunities also come with challenges, and risks, that need to be understood and addressed.

We create data as part of our everyday routine, through the devices and services we use – our interactions and behaviours are captured on our commute, shopping trips, and while walking around our towns and cities. Data about us is stored, processed and analysed by increasingly advanced and complex techniques: by governments, businesses and academia alike. This can creates an environment for automated decision-making that is beneficial, through better, more effective services, but also harmful, through bad design, and embedded biases or assumptions.

Data in itself is an abstraction of the real world. With technologies such as machine learning and artificial intelligence advancing the ways it can be used, these techniques become more removed from people, which can lead to a sense of powerlessness in the face of technology and its application. The erosion of agency and, by association, trust, through imposed and opaque systems, and the decisions that are made using them, is detrimental to the needs of society, where major social, environmental and economic challenges need to be addressed through individual and collective action, and behaviour change.

It’s vital that we collectively acknowledge our current data environment and work together to understand, and counter, the risks to individual rights, and society as a whole, while also grasping future opportunities, and the wider benefits, that responsible and intelligent data practice can bring.

Greater Manchester was a crucible for new ideas and endeavour at the turn of the 19th century, and now at the beginning of the 21st, the opportunity has arisen to lead the way in progressive, ethical and trustworthy data practice that can help bring about a fair, equitable and more sustainable future.