Data Journalism: Preparing for the next war

An edited version of this article appeared in Village magazine, November 2014 edition

“Getting it right next time” was the theme of the 15th Cleraun media conference, as academics and journalists jousted over what went wrong during the Celtic Tiger era, whether the media could have done more to warn about the dangers of the boom, and what to do better next time.

Contributors differed about the degree to which commercial media were compromised by property advertising, to the extent that evidence of a problem was ignored, and whether journalists could be blamed for the failures when most economists had also failed to predict the crash (with some on both sides contesting that there were crash warnings, so there).

Office of the Data Protection commissioner, Portartlington
Office of the Data Protection commissioner, Portartlington. Image © Faduda

But when it came to “Getting it right next time”, the focus was on better economic reporting to spot the next bubble/crash.

The trouble is, when history repeats itself, it is not always a carbon copy. The next bubble is unlikely to be property. The generals are preparing to fight the last war, but a glance at coverage of the latest trends in the Dublin property market illustrates that the claims of estate agents and economists are being scrutinised as never before.

Meanwhile, data protection has become a big issue for multinationals, and there are signs that Ireland is losing out.

On the day the Cleraun conference opened, Amazon announced it was offering its corporate customers the option of running internet services and holding data in Germany, in a bid to reassure European businesses nervous about the threat of online spying in the US.

Microsoft announced in mid-September plans to host a new data centre in Germany, which would hold data on its German customers, secure from the prying eyes of the NSA. Oracle announced a further two data centres in Frankfurt and Munich at the end of the month.

Those announcements should worry the IDA. Microsoft and Amazon already have data centres in Ireland, and EU laws are supposed to mean that the data protection regime in Ireland is as strong as that in Berlin. But cases like Europe v Facebook have demonstrated that the Irish data protection commissioner is severely under-resourced, and the image of the commissioner’s head office, located above a supermarket in Portarlington thanks to Charlie McCreevey’s decentralisation brainwave, did not go down well overseas.

The 2015 budget saw no change in the amount to be spent on the Data Protection Commissioner’s office, though it has been promised a new office in the capital.

It may seem counter-intuitive, but technology companies actually want stringent regulation. While Google may complain about the Right to be Forgotten, the corporations who entrust their data to the cloud know they have to demonstrate their data is secure. One consultancy firm estimated that American companies could lose up to $35 billion (€27.5 billion) to overseas companies by 2016 because of their customers’ worries about state spying. And with a New York federal court ordering Microsoft to hand over data stored in Ireland to American investigators, there is a business case for storing data in jurisdictions with a strong record of data protection. And that is more likely to mean Germany than the “Wild West” of light touch that characterises Irish regulatory schemes.

Yet while data protection, privacy, and surveillance have become major European issues since the Snowden revelations, leading to increased friction between the EU and US, no Irish media outlet has assigned journalists to cover the data beat. While groups like Digital Rights Ireland successfully take the Irish government to the European Court of Justice over excessive EU-mandated mass surveillance, technology correspondents are more likely to report on the latest iPhone launch, business correspondents obsess over the corporation tax rate, and legal correspondents rarely venture outside the national courts. It is left to a few reporters such as Karlin Lillington to document the changing legal and technology landscape.

Noonan’s budget did recognise the importance of data to the corporate sector. The new 6.25% “knowledge development box” tax rate, headlined as a tax incentive to companies to develop new technologies in Ireland, will apply to “customer lists”, according to the draft Companies Bill published days later. But with data at risk if stored in Ireland, that may not be enough, particularly since the knowledge box is not a purely Irish innovation, with similar schemes already in place in the United Kingdom and the Netherlands. In taking an approach based on tax incentives rather than properly implemented regulation, Noonan too is in danger of preparing to fight the last war.

UPDATE: Karlin Lillington has pointed out that data protection (rather than general technology coverage, which was my perception) is her beat, and she has published numerous stories on the topic since 1998 in the Irish Times. Elaine Edwards has also reported regularly on data protection for the newspaper.