C-Suite Advisory

The Age of Truth: Open Data will Be More Critical in Business

Steve Mast, President and Chief Innovation Officer of Delvinia
Steve Mast, President and Chief Innovation Officer of Delvinia

As we enter the dawn of a new presidency, we emerge from a time where truth seemed to become flexible and, worse, optional. Lies and misinformation abounded, and it extended well beyond the White House. Politicians of all kinds across the globe are getting caught in, and called out for, hypocritical or corrupt actions. Business leaders are being removed from their positions for nefarious actions they tried to keep behind closed doors. Media is getting called out for one-sided reporting. People are tired of the smoke and mirrors, tired of feeling manipulated, tired of having fiction treated like fact. And the technology of today has made it harder and harder to hide the truth.

Video is everywhere, providing concrete evidence where before the public had to rely on the accounts of people present or in power. Social media and email document most, if not all, of our actions. While COVID-19 may have brought much of this desire for the truth to a boiling point, it began long before it and extends well beyond it.

Paired with that hunger for truth is a crisis of trust. Trust in every institution, including government, business, NGOs, and media, has dropped over the course of the last year, according to Edelman’s latest Trust Barometer. How deep does this mistrust go? That same study by Edelman indicated that 57 percent of people globally agree: “Our government leaders are purposely trying to mislead people by saying things they know are false or gross exaggerations.” 56 percent say the same about CEOs, and 59 percent agreed to the same statement about journalists.

Read those stats again. More than half of the world’s population don’t trust what leaders in nearly any role are saying. They don’t believe it is the truth – and that is all they want.

It’s because of this that I believe we are entering an Age of Truth. While transparency and authenticity have long been buzzwords, it is now being demanded that they be the pillars upon which every decision is made. Success in any arena now hinges on the ability to be forthright, honest, and truthful.

We have already seen this in business. Label Insight conducted a study which found that 94% of customers are likely to show loyalty to a brand that offers complete transparency. People are eager for the truth and will be quick to pay attention when they get it. Gone are the days of pretty words and interesting ideas being enough – in the Age of Truth, proven and demonstrable facts will reign supreme.

The implications of this are twofold. First, checking in with customers (or readers, or constituents, as the case may be) is more important than ever before. Organizations of all kinds need to know – not assume – if their target audiences feel they are being truthful. They need to understand if their messages are demonstrating transparency and if they are perceived as addressing concerns honestly. Second, and perhaps most importantly, data needs to become more open.

Open data will be critical in this Age of Truth. Individuals don’t just want, but need, to be able to check facts for themselves. They need to feel equipped to make decisions based on fact and not conjecture, and to believe their leaders are doing the same. It is a necessary component in rebuilding the trust that has been lost, as it will allow transparency and collaboration. With more data available to anyone and everyone, opinion will start to take a backseat to data, and the truth will be infinitely harder to obscure in any capacity.

At my company, we took the importance of open data to heart. We partnered with the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health to conduct six national surveys on the mental health and substance use of people during COVID-19. We then made all of that data available, completely free, to anyone. We did so because this data was critical to how organizations of all kinds responded to the pandemic. We have had over 1,000 people access the data, from corporate brands to university researchers to government offices to non-profit organizations. They have reliable, quality data with which to make decisions, rather than opinions and assumptions.

There is difficulty in this reliance upon data, though. First and foremost is the security with which the private data of individuals is being handled. If people don’t have confidence in the ways in which their information is being collected, stored, and used then collecting it in the first place will become virtually impossible. For too long companies have been quietly using the data in ways unknown, and at times not consented to by their customers. Companies profit off of their “proprietary” data while the individual is left feeling exploited.

There are organizations trying to combat this, though, and some are doing so in very creative ways. A great example of this is Measure Protocol, a blockchain-powered marketplace that gives users control of their own data. Measure states that their mission “is to democratize data by giving individuals control over their data in a permissioned and privacy-by-design environment where they are compensated fairly, and data buyers, users and society can benefit from clean data of the greatest possible quality.” It is a way of embedding transparency into data collection, and giving individuals the control they need to rebuild trust in the organizations that collect and use their data.

Another issue with the collection of data is that respondents are not always entirely truthful, or can be impacted by other circumstances in the moment of their response. Measure Protocol also attempts to address this issue through blockchain. Another creative solution, however, comes from AI. PersonaPanels is a company that develops virtual consumer panels made up of “Animated Personas”. Animated Personas are AI-models that are trained to mimic the behaviours, responses and evolving interests of real consumers. The Animated Personas don’t have bad days, or feel compelled to hide certain thoughts, feelings, or behaviours. While they are primarily used for marketing purposes currently, their potential to help get reliable, honest feedback is immense.

The Age of Truth has been brought on, in many ways, because of advancements in technology. Technology is also what will enable it to reach its full potential and truly transform society. But even if you are not in the technology space, that doesn’t mean you can’t be an important part of this transformation. You can contribute most importantly by looking at your own organization and asking, where can we be more transparent? What can you show your customers that you currently aren’t? If there are areas that feel “unsafe” to be transparent about, examine why, and if practices need to change. If your organization already upholds the tenets of transparency and authenticity, continue to be a leading voice that encourages others to do so as well. Openly share the benefits of being truthful, both for your organization and for your customers. Making truth commonplace again is an important piece of the puzzle that anyone can choose to be a part of. Do not underestimate the power that holds.

I foresee a great deal of upheaval over the coming years as the Age of Truth progresses. Systems that have long been allowed to operate in the shadows will now be under a spotlight. People will continue to demand facts over rhetoric, and the ability to check the data for themselves. The organizations and leaders that do not fulfil the expectations of truth and transparency will fail, and those that embody these values will be the ones to take us into a new world. It will be in this new world that trust is rebuilt and, hopefully, a more equitable and just society is formed.

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Steve Mast
Steve Mast is the President and Chief Innovation Officer of Delvinia, a data collection firm that has captured more than 180 million opinions and created the automated market research platform Methodify, recognized as one of the GRIT top 50 most innovative companies in the world.

Steve Mast is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine. You can follow him on LinkedIn.