It has become a commonplace to say how important data is to our lives and society, but it’s only in the last 18 months or so that I have I come to realise what this means.
In the 19th century factories and railways changed almost everything about society. Over the next 30 years it was electricity, and for the rest of the 20th century the internal combustion engine transformed our lives. This wasn’t just a cultural set of changes dominating the way we live but each one became the economic driver for what counted as wealth.
If you wanted to accumulate wealth during any of those periods it was wise to invest in, and own as much as you could of, each of these drivers of change. They grew in importance and wise wealth owners ‘got out of railways’ and ‘got into energy/cars’ as their source of wealth.
This is what data has now become. Over the last 15-20 years a number of changes to the way in which both the economy and society function have been very important to us. New TV channels have been followed by a completely different way of accessing media. New, more convenient, computers; the internet (where this blog lives), new ways of banking and buying products; the smartphones that most of us use nearly all the time. All of these are new industries which have created some of the biggest ever companies in the world.
But we now know, that each of these industries that ostensibly entertain us; make it easier for us to buy goods and services; allow us to better communicate with each other etc., in short support the important activities which dominate our lives, is not what they are about.
What they are about, and what has created their enormous worth, derives from the data that is automatically collected about us when we use their services.
Apple, Instagram, Facebook – all of these organisations are wealthy because of the data they have collected. Data is wealth in itself. Not the phones or other hardware – which are pennies compared to the billions that the data is worth. A few months ago Deliveroo became one of the FT 100 top firms. What do they own? Not the restaurants they collect from, not even the bikes that carry the deliveries. What they own is the data about all of us that have bought food through them.
So in today’s world companies that are essentially data mines are worth more than those that get oil out of the ground, build cars or do anything else.
I’m a bit scared by this as I grew up in a world where wealth seemed to be about something a bit more tangible, also because I read George Orwell’s 1984 50 years ago and was scared about THEM knowing so much about ME. But despite these fears there is a strong driver for most people to go on using these communication tools as a major part of their lives.
All of us who are a bit worried about this construct more and more of our lives through the digital world. I recall, less than 10 years ago, that every July Amazon would suggest thrillers that I might want to read on holiday. They were right 90% of the time. That was simply based on my previous book purchases with them and most of my summer reading that they select now works really well for me. The fact that my devices now know so much about me is a bit scary; the fact that it makes my life so much easier is wonderful. Does it frighten me a bit? Yes. Am I going to go on doing it? You bet.
The fact that in 2018 the new form of wealth is data, what do you think any of this will look like by the end of the 10-year long-term NHS plan in 2028? It’s already normal – by 2028 it will become recent history rather than surprising.
Healthcare is a data business (even more than food delivery!).
The amount of data that exists about our individual health and healthcare is rising and the number of diagnostic tests increases all the time. It’s already the case that you can have your DNA read for a few pounds and probably in just a few months this will have a bigger impact on our healthcare than anything else. And every day I count my steps and most days take my blood pressure – more and more data being collected about each and every one of us.
One of the sadder aspects about all this is that much of the data that I collect about my health has no relationship with the data that the NHS has about me. In fact, at the moment, my mobile phone probably knows more about my current state of health than the NHS.
But, taken as a whole, there is probably 20 to 30 times more data available about my personal health and healthcare today than existed 10 years ago. In another 10 years that will probably increase by another factor of 20.
To create a sustainable NHS we need to use this information much more than we do at the moment.
It would be great if the NHS had access to all of my health data to inform discussions I have with clinicians. If that has happened in 10 years’ time by the end of the new Long-term Plan (when I will be 80) the NHS will stop making all sorts of wrong and expensive assumptions about how it wants to create healthcare with me. It will know me much better.
The big prize for each of us as individuals is for the NHS to know much more of our personal data that already exists in order for it to work with us better to improve our health and healthcare.
The second big prize is to bring that all data together for 55 million people. The wealth that data would create would make the wealth engines of Apple and others a lot less worrying – and that would be really good for of all of our health. If the NHS can, over the next decade, access data that will be generated about an old man of 70 becoming an older man of 80 – and knew this for the millions who go through a decade of ageing – it would be able to treat all of us in a much more sustainable way.
Finally it would also mean that we as a nation had a health data basis for wealth that – for the country – would be worth billions. For Apple what appeared to be a by-product of their communication work, is actually what creates their wealth. For the NHS what appears to be a by-product of its healthcare work is data that could create wealth for it.
Some of this may frighten people. But if we want to create a sustainable long-term NHS then we will need to find other sources of wealth – beyond taxes – to help sustain it. Some of that will come from patients improving their ability to self-care – the renewable energy for the NHS that I talked about last week.
Some of it could come from the wealth that is a by-product of the healthcare work in which we are all engaged.
Just because Apple and others have created wealth through data that has primarily been used in the financial interests of very few, doesn’t mean that all data and wealth has to be used that way.
In the 70th anniversary year of the NHS we thrill to the way in which healthcare has been distributed in our society not on the basis of who has the most money to buy it – but on the basis of equal access to all, free at the point of need. We recognise that, even though most goods and services in this country are distributed through the medium of wealth – the NHS can develop its own way of distributing healthcare.
The people have learned to trust the NHS to distribute healthcare in a different way from other goods and services. If we could trust the NHS to own and develop and distribute the wealth that comes from all of our collective healthcare data, we would have a prize that would help to sustain the NHS for much more than the next decade.