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Erasmus Data Summit asks ‘who controls data?’ – event report

The hot topic of collecting and handling data was thoroughly addressed at this year’s Erasmus Data Summit, held online on 15 July. The Summit, hosted by the Erasmus Centre for Data Analytics (ECDA), posed a deceptively simple question: Who is in control of data? Leading thinkers on the topics were invited to discuss implications with Erasmus’ experts on data: Paul Nemitz, Principal Advisor in the Directorate-General for Justice and Consumers of the European Commission, and Frank Slootman, CEO of Snowflake were in discussion with Liesbet van Zoonen, Professor of Sociology at Erasmus University Rotterdam (RSM) and Pearl Dykstra, Professor of Empirical Sociology at Erasmus University and Scientific Director of ODISSEI. The discussions across the Summit ranged from humans versus algorithms to privacy, usefulness, and governments versus companies. The online audience gained a comprehensive understanding of today’s challenges for control of data and AI.



Speakers from academic, business, public, and legal backgrounds debated who owns, controls and uses data, and what consumers should expect in return for allowing others to use their data – according to what is allowed by national and EU regulations for data and AI that provide a framework to control its use. They were joined by an audience of 525 participants around the world.

Introducing the questions were Farshida Zafar, Director of ErasmusX, Prof. Ed Brinksma, President of Erasmus University Rotterdam (EUR), and Gerrit Schipper, the Executive Director of ECDA. The initial questions opened up the afternoon’s debate: Who controls data? Is control of data generally good or bad for individuals? For example, handing over control of your data for healthcare is beneficial but could be dangerous if the data is misused.

Gerrit Shipper first introduced ECDA, which was created in 2018 to prepare the university and society for a data-driven future. It enables public and private partners, technology companies and start-ups and scaleups to work together with students and faculty in learning and researching the impact of data analytics and artificial intelligence (AI). There is high demand for ECDA’s services and expertise, he said.

Prof. Brinksma confirmed ECDA’s impact and its importance for improving knowledge about the use of data and analytics and its societal implications. The centre’s focus on education and research into data use for societal and business impact aligns with the multidisciplinary structure of the university, he said. The positive impact of EUR comes from its ethical perspective, channelled through ECDA; what’s more, the centre enables students to use its collaborations with organisations to explore the world of data and AI.

Organisations and students do not need to be specialists in the field, but everyone should be aware of the implications of technology and algorithmic thinking. It’s an increasingly inevitable part of life.

Human versus algorithm – an academic perspective

RSM’s professor of marketing Prof. Stefano Puntoni – an academic director of ECDA – gave the audience a behavioural science approach to automation. Prof. Puntoni’s fields of expertise are the impact of AI on consumption and society, decision making with data, and technological replacement of human labour. He gave a broad introduction to human motivations and how we interact with technology.

People buy technology for the outcome that can achieve from it, so the design of any final product must take into consideration the experience of the person using it, and the impact of such technology on society must be made clear, he said.

While technology in general brings important improvements to people’s lives, it can also take away small parts of everyday life that humans consider to be part of their identity – so it’s important to include a user-based point of view in its development. Technology must fit the multiple selves of individuals because people care about being in control.

Summing up and addressing the question of who is in control of data, Prof. Puntoni said that consumers and workers do not always seek less effort and less responsibility, and the cost of adopting technology can often be socio-emotional. It raised another question too: “If our lives are being emptied by our amazing machines, how will we fill it?” he asked.

The public cloud

A fireside chat with Frank Slootman, CEO of Snowflake and  Prof. Pearl Dykstra, Professor of Empirical Sociology at Erasmus University and Scientific Director of ODISSEI (Open Data Infrastructure for Social Science and Economic Innovations) covered the subject of data storage and distributed computing – which is what Snowflake does. The company provides a reimagined platform that enables a single and seamless experience across multiple public clouds to execute diverse analytic workloads wherever data lives or wherever users are located. This enrichment of data – making data more impactful through essential data sharing to benefit both data provider and sharer – comes with the proviso that whichever organisation that controls the data must comply with data law: security models give control over the data itself but not its physical location.

The debaters highlighted the fact that for today’s students, the business of data will continue to grow; learning the technical skills for working with data will reward future careers, they said. The rapid pace of change in the data sector sees data directly driving operations. The only limit is human imagination – and budget.

Will humans become borgs?

Prof. Wolf Ketter, Professor of Next Generation Information Systems at RSM outlined his vision of the future of work, considering whether or not AI would be ‘a job killer’. We must design an effective and collaborative work environment for both humans and AI, he said; some tasks should be delegated to AI for higher efficiency. But what if AI delegates tasks back to humans? Humans can’t always delegate effectively because humans do not know what they don’t know, he stated. AI advice increases accuracy but decreases unique human knowledge. However, the takeaway from his presentation was that the collaboration of humans and AI leads to a much better performance than either humans or AI alone.

Global culture of data protection

Liesbet van Zoonen, Professor of Sociology and Dean of the Erasmus Graduate School of Social Sciences and the Humanities at Erasmus University Rotterdam, and Paul Nemitz, Principal Advisor in the Directorate-General for Justice and Consumers of the European Commission, discussed GDPR, the General Data Protection Regulation. These regulations were nothing revolutionary and the laws were already in place when the GDPR regulations came into force in May 2018. However, they did achieve a change in global culture, and data protection demands are now recognised as acknowledgement of the respect and privacy of individuals. Without them, democracy would be damaged. There is enough understanding of the ethical side of AI, but not yet enough knowledge of its societal consequences – this is a cause of unrest about new technologies and AI. A working democracy is crucial as life becomes increasingly driven by technology.

A better balance for data sharing

The Summit continued with a panel discussion featuring: Prof. Pearl Dykstra, Miranda Graftdijk, Data Lead at the Dutch Association of Insurers; Bart Voorn who is head of research and development at Ahold Delhaize, Evert Stamhuis, Professor of Law at Erasmus University Rotterdam, Rick Spaans, manager of data analytics for the Gemeente (council) of Den Haag, and moderated by Farshida Zafar.

Organisations must define a good data strategy with governance and data literacy, which would improve the quality of data and analytics, the panel agreed. They also noted that sharing and controlling data should bring a benefit to organisations that do it. In a modern society, other values overrule any individual’s interest in personal privacy. A better balance would allow individuals to be more in control of their data. This means there needs to be better education on data matters and the enforcement of stronger regulations.

Trust – and life-saving

The final session of the day was presented by Prof. Patrick Groenen, professor of statistics at Erasmus University, and dean of the Erasmus School of Economics. He outlined that organisations must think about what they need to control data for; the key point is credibility and integrity to develop trust. Data has saved lives during the Covid-19 pandemic, he said. The collection and sharing of data had allowed governments and health professionals to monitor situations accurately and helped them to find solutions quickly.

More information

Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM) is one of Europe’s top-ranked business schools. RSM provides ground-breaking research and education furthering excellence in all aspects of management and is based in the international port city of Rotterdam – a vital nexus of business, logistics and trade. RSM’s primary focus is on developing business leaders with international careers who can become a force for positive change by carrying their innovative mindset into a sustainable future. Our first-class range of bachelor, master, MBA, PhD and executive programmes encourage them to become critical, creative, caring and collaborative thinkers and doers. Study information and activities for future students, executives and alumni are also organised from the RSM office in Chengdu, China. www.rsm.nl

For more information about RSM or this release, please contact Erika Harriford-McLaren, communications manager for RSM, on +31 10 408 2877 or by email at harriford@rsm.nl.

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