So, we are told that if we have access to data we are going to be able to be part of the ‘big society’ and it is going to improve our lives. There has been a lot of discussion this week about the arrival of crime maps charting crime and antisocial behaviour down to street level, and how having such data will help people with modern life.
I am not going to pass any kind of judgement about the creation of the maps and whether they bring anything new to the discussion around crime and antisocial behaviour. What I am more interested in is whether having knowledge of statistics and information actually makes things better for people going about their daily lives? Or as Thomas Gray and many others have said is ignorance bliss? Finally, what does this latest situation mean for communication professionals and how will they have to expand their repertoire?
Statistics do provide us with information or facts about elements of modern life. They can tell us how many books have been taken out of the local library, how many incidents of antisocial behaviour have been reported, what amount of household waste is recycled and lots of other interesting bits of information. That is assuming that the data comes from a reliable source, and is clearly explained so that people understand what it includes. Without a huge amount of support though the figures can just become like wallpaper or an interesting accompaniment to day-to-day life.
Information is useful when you can do something with it. Clearly knowing how much waste has been recycled could encourage more recycling, and we might realise that the library is at risk of closure if the number of books taken out is low. Does that mean that we will rush in a big society style to take it over? Possibly not, in many cases we will just moan about the state of the library provision in our communities.
If I am told that people who live in my streets are more likely to get cancer, be run over by a bus or suffer an accident at home how can it help me? In fact, does it do anything beyond making me concerned every time I turn on a blender or go to cross the road? In such cases is ignorance really a bad thing? If I am unaware of the possibility of impending doom I can continue to live by life happily. Is that such a problem?
Whatever the rights and wrongs of the lies, damned lies and statistics, opendata is going to be a factor of modern life. It will mean communication has to be approached in a different way. Knowledge is power, and previously PR professionals and communicators have been the ones with the knowledge. Things changed with the introduction of the Freedom of Information legislation and with increasing access to data the balance of power is definitely shifting. It is not something to be afraid of but something we should embrace.
If people have more information at their fingertips and ask more questions it gives an opportunity for companies to start to engage with them. Communication will not be restricted to what we the business or PR mouthpiece tell you, but more importantly it will be about what you know and how we can add to and enhance that knowledge. The obsessive control that many PR and communication professionals have tried to have over reputation is now irrelevant. The future for them is going to be defined by how they develop and work to protect the business or company reputation in modern life, with comments and information on social networks and being circulated around websites. The key will be about being responsive and quick to manage emerging issues. And equally as quick to respond to and maximise the opportunities. It will be about offering access to all elements of the organisation and finding new ways of bringing that to life. For me, it is more about how ideas such as #GMP24 – that provided details of all the calls received by one police force – can become mainstream.
Whatever happens to the rhetoric about the big society, it is irrelevant as the future for communication is going to be defined by the tools that are available. It will be about the ability to adapt what we do as communication professionals, taking a different approach, opening up access to our businesses and organisations. If knowledge is in the hands of the public then it can no longer be about power but about collaboration and identifying how lives can be improved with the data that is available. That is the kind of society, big or not, that I would like to be part of.