Microsoft launches Open Data Campaign to narrow ‘data divide’ as information is consolidated

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Brad Smith speaks at a 2019 Town Hall event in Seattle. (GeekWire Photo / Kevin Lisota)

The U.S., China, and about 100 companies are poised to capture the majority of the world’s data, according to Microsoft. But despite being one of the beneficiaries of that data divide, Microsoft says it wants to close it.

The Seattle-area tech giant announced a series of initiatives Tuesday designed to make it easier to access and share the oceans of data produced every day. The Open Data Campaign involves dozens of data collaborations, the creation of a new government think tank, and public and private partnerships designed to use information for good.

“Today all of the data generated on the internet, if you think about it in its entirety, half of it will accrue to 100 companies,” said Microsoft President Brad Smith in an interview with GeekWire.

“We see more data being consolidated in the hands of a smaller number of companies,” he added. “The same thing follows if you think about the economic benefits of artificial intelligence.”

What’s new: Microsoft is developing 20 “data collaborations” using shared data that will be rolled out by 2022. The first pairs broadband access data from Microsoft’s Airband initiative with information compiled by the nonprofit Broadband Now. The company is publishing data sharing principles to guide its approach and provide a framework for other organizations. Microsoft is partnering with NYU’s GovLab to create a think tank that advises governments on data use and sharing as part of the initiative.

Why it matters: Data powers the artificial intelligence revolution and PwC estimates that 70% of the global economic benefits of AI will accrue to just two countries: the U.S. and China. Access to useable data can inform decisions in public health, resource allocation, environmental conservation, and other disciplines. Governments around the world are relying on data access in their response to the coronavirus pandemic, including leveraging the Open Research Dataset, a free resource from the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence. In addition to helping with that initiative, Microsoft is working with Adaptive Biotechnologies to map the immune response to COVID-19. Microsoft said Monday it would publish any findings through an open data portal.

“What we need to do for hospitals for COVID-19 is what we need to do for ecosystems … it’s what we need to do for carbon emissions, for the management of supply chains,” Smith said. “Almost every big problem we need to solve in the world is going to require more use of data and increasingly more sharing of it.”

What’s next: In the coming weeks, Microsoft plans to build technologies that help cities around the world share data with one another. The company will be a founding partner of the Open Data Policy Lab at NYU. Microsoft also plans to open up data collected for its “AI for Good” initiatives.

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