The value of Big Data: ethics and innovation

Published on Thursday, 18 January 2018

Big data, algorithms and artificial intelligence are the driving forces behind today’s digital transformation. But how can data help us predict the consequences of our decisions? And how can it be used to make us more conscious and thus guide us in dealing with the complexity of an increasingly digital human race? 

These were the themes of the conference “Data to Change. The Human Digital Transformation” organised by the Department of European Policies and the InnovaFiducia Association with the support of Enel, on January 15 at the Sala della Regina in the Italian Chamber of Deputies in Rome. 

Opened by the Italian Under-Secretary for European Affairs Sandro Gozi and Felicia Pelagalli, President of InnovaFiducia and founder of Culture, the event explored the tools now available to governments, companies, experts and citizens to build a data culture, with people and the protection of privacy at its heart as the key requisites in the design of the technologies.

Having tackled the subject of the relationship between ethics, Big Data and artificial intelligence during presentations by Roberto Cingolani, Scientific Director of the Italian Institute for Technology in Genoa, and Dino Pedreschi, Professor of Computer Science at the University of Pisa, the focus of the event shifted to the human factor. The need to craft a new human and social project in the wake of the “disconnect” caused by the current digital revolution, was the theme addressed by Luciano Floridi, Professor of Philosophy and Ethics of Information at the University of Oxford and Director of the Digital Ethics Lab and The Human Project for the Information Society. Quoting Giacomo Leopardi, Floridi explained that while most Italians may know the first few verses of the poem “To Silvia” by heart, hardly anyone remembers the rest of the poem. The same thing happens when people talk about the digital world: there is always a risk of getting stuck on the opening verse. We may discuss the importance of these innovative technologies but, as Floridi noted, “the real challenge today is not technological innovation but digital governance.” Hence the need to create a design for our human project: an ambitious project capable of using digital for the good of humanity by incentivising sustainability and redistributing value.

Enel’s Chief Innovability Officer Ernesto Ciorra, who sat on the panel that focused on the relationship between data and innovation, also referenced the Leopardi quotation when addressing the conference. “We need a vision of hope, and thus of the future, to encourage humanity to grow,” he began, reiterating the central importance of the human factor in the development of new technologies. “The world of artificial intelligence is intrinsically rational and, as a result, standard. What is so magnificent about the human brain, however, is that it can dream and create innovation by learning from its own mistakes. That makes it inimitable,” he stressed. The desire, hope and ability to connect different spheres, the freedom to make decisions and dream are all peculiar to humans and allow us to make technological advances to improve our lives. The creative thought.

The Chief Innovability Officer then reminded those present that Enel has linked its own strategy to the implementation of 4 of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals defined in the UN’s 2030 Agenda, in particular number 7 concerning the universal access to energy. One of our company’s great mantras is to make economically and environmentally sustainable energy accessible to all. To achieve this, continued Ciorra, Enel has combined innovation and sustainability to accelerate the electrification of territories and communities: our company uses digital technologies not merely to optimise the output and efficiency of our plants, but also to pinpoint innovative ideas and solutions. Thus we are using artificial intelligence tools to find startups and patents, by analysing millions of university theses and documents. Our aim in doing so is to create value for the company, society and people, always using a sustainable approach as our starting point. “Technology is a tool that is becoming increasingly easy to access, but it will not be able to create real value without the creation of a social model,” concluded Enel’s Chief Innovability Officer.

A governance model and the ability to integrate are both essential factors for extracting value from data by transforming it into knowledge that will actually be useful to people. This was the theme addressed by the “Data Policy” panel. Emanuele Baldacci, Eurostat’s Director of Methodology, IT and Corporate Statistical Services, observed that to read and analyse the enormous quantity of data gathered today by both the public administration and companies, we need technologies, processes and algorithms. But, once again, behind such tools are people who make the data genuinely usable.

Government Commissioner for the Digital Agenda Diego Piacentini then explained that the DAF (Data & Analytics Framework) will be trialled in Italy in 2018. The DAF provides a reference framework complete with technical guidelines to allow the various offices of the public administration to input data through a single coherent system. The aim is to connect the many different “silos” in which the public administration is split in an effort to understand how to build new services and improve existing ones.
ISTAT President Giorgio Alleva observed that data can thus be a formidable driver of change and added value. However, it must be used and analysed using quality integrated models and the requisite skills. 

The next step is to pool all the tools that allow us to extract information and knowledge from data and create a widespread and conscious data culture in order to guide this digital revolution in as positive direction as possible. This is only the start. 

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