FlyTitle: The data economy

A big member of big tech embraces open data

科技巨头圈子里的一个重量级成员拥护开放数据

TWO DECADES ago Microsoft was a byword for a technological walled garden. One of its bosses called free open-source programs a “cancer”. That was then. On April 21st the world’s most valuable tech firm joined a fledgling movement to liberate the world’s data. The company plans to launch 20 data-sharing groups by 2022 and give away some of its digital information, including data it has gathered on covid-19.

二十年前,微软还是“带围墙的技术花园”的代名词。它的一任老板曾把免费的开源程序称为“毒瘤”。然而此一时彼一时。4月21日,这家全球市值最高的科技公司加入了一场开放世界数据的新兴运动。它计划在2022年前成立20个数据共享团体,无偿公开公司的部分数字信息,包括自己收集的新冠肺炎数据。

Microsoft is not alone in its newfound fondness for sharing in the age of the coronavirus. “The world has faced pandemics before, but this time we have a new superpower: the ability to gather and share data for good,” Mark Zuckerberg, the boss of Facebook, a social-media giant, wrote in the Washington Post on April 20th. Despite the EU’s strict privacy rules, some Eurocrats now argue that data-sharing could speed up efforts to fight the virus.

微软并不是新冠病毒时代唯一一家开始热衷于信息分享的公司。4月20日,社交媒体巨头Facebook的老板马克·扎克伯格在《华盛顿邮报》撰文写道:“过去世界也曾遭遇大流行病,但这一次我们拥有一项新的超级能力:收集并共享数据来造福人类。”尽管欧盟有严格的隐私保护条例,但一些欧盟官员现在提出,数据共享可以加快抗击新冠病毒的进程。

The case for sharing data predates the pandemic. The OECD, a club mostly of rich countries, reckons that if data were more widely exchanged, many states could enjoy gains worth 1-2.5% of GDP. The estimate is based on heroic assumptions (such as putting a number on opportunities for startups). But economists agree that readier access to data is broadly beneficial, because data are “non-rivalrous”: unlike oil, say, they can be used and re-used without being depleted, to power various artificial-intelligence algorithms at once, for example.

在这场大流行病之前,人们就已提出共享数据的理由。成员主要为富裕国家的经合组织估计,假设数据交流更为广泛,许多国家可能会得到相当于GDP的1%到2.5%的好处。虽然这一估计是基于大胆的假设(比如把创业公司的商机也算在内),但经济学家们一致认为,更方便地获取数据可以让人们广泛受益,因为数据是“非竞争性的”:数据不像石油,它可以被反复使用而不会枯竭,比如可以同时驱动各种不同的人工智能算法。

Many governments have recognised the potential. Cities from Berlin to San Francisco have “open data” initiatives. Companies have been cagier, says Stefaan Verhulst, who heads the Governance Lab at New York University, which studies such schemes. Firms fear losing intellectual property, imperilling users’ privacy and hitting technical obstacles. Standard data formats (eg, JPEG images) can be shared easily, but much that a Facebook’s software collects would be meaningless to a Microsoft, even after reformatting. Less than half of the 113 “data collaboratives” identified by the lab involve corporations. Those that do, including initiatives by BBVA, a Spanish bank, and GlaxoSmithKline, a British drugmaker, have been small or limited in scope.

许多政府已经认识到了这种潜力。从柏林到旧金山的很多城市都有“公开数据”项目。研究这类方案的纽约大学治理实验室(Governance Lab)的负责人斯特凡·费尔哈斯特(Stefaan Verhulst)表示,相比之下,企业在这方面的态度一直更谨慎。它们担心丧失知识产权、危及用户隐私、遭遇技术障碍。标准数据格式(比如JPEG图像)很容易共享,但由Facebook的软件收集的很多数据即使修改了格式,对微软的软件来说仍然毫无意义。在该实验室确定的113个“数据合作项目”中,有企业参与的还不到一半,而且它们的规模也都很小或者涉及范围有限,比如西班牙对外银行(BBVA)和英国制药公司葛兰素史克(GlaxoSmithKline)提出的方案。

Microsoft’s campaign is the most consequential by far. Besides encouraging non-commercial sharing, the firm is developing software, licences and (with the Governance Lab and others) rules frameworks to let firms trade data or provide access without losing control. Optimists believe that the giant’s move could be to data what IBM’s embrace in the late 1990s of the Linux operating system was to open-source software. Linux went on to become a rival to Microsoft’s own Windows and today underpins Google’s Android mobile software and much of cloud-computing.

微软提出的计划绝对是最重大的。除了鼓励非商业性数据共享,微软还在开发软件和许可,并与治理实验室等各方一起打造规则框架,让企业可以开展数据交易或提供数据的使用权而不失去控制。乐观主义者认为,微软此举对于数据的意义将堪比IBM在上世纪90年代末采用Linux操作系统对于开源软件的意义。当年,Linux随后发展为微软自行研发的Windows的竞争对手,到如今已是谷歌的安卓移动软件和大量云计算的基础。

Brad Smith, Microsoft’s president, notes that fewer than 100 firms collect more than half of all data generated online. More sharing would, in his view, counteract the concentration of economic—and political—power. Bridging the “data divide”, as he calls it, won’t be easy. Data are more complex than code. Most programmers speak the same language and open-source collectives mainly solve technical problems. People in charge of data often come from different industries without a common vocabulary and talk business.

微软总裁布拉德·史密斯(Brad Smith)指出,不到100家公司收集了一半以上的在线生成的数据。在他看来,加大数据共享能阻止经济力量和政治力量的集中。要消除他所说的“数据分割”并非易事。数据比代码更复杂。大多数程序员都有共同的语言,而开源团队主要解决技术问题。主管数据的人却往往来自各行各业,各有各的语言体系,而且谈的是生意。

Indeed, like IBM before it, Microsoft has reasons other than altruism to champion open data. It makes most of its money not by extracting value from hoarded data through targeted advertising, like Alphabet or Facebook, but by selling services and software to help others process digital information. The more data that are shared, the better for Microsoft. Mr Smith argues that this makes his firm the perfect campaigner for open data. “If you want to know who to trust”, he says, “you should look at the company’s business model.”

事实上,和当年支持Linux的IBM一样,微软也并非出于无私才成为开放数据的拥趸。微软不像Alphabet或 Facebook等公司那样通过定向广告从自己储存的数据中赚钱,它大部分收入来自出售服务和软件以帮助其他公司处理数字信息。共享的数据越多,对微软越有利。史密斯认为,这让微软成为开放数据的完美倡导者。“如果你想知道哪家公司值得信任,”他说,“就应该看看它的商业模式。”

That may be so. But this also points to a bigger hurdle. Even if technical and legal barriers to sharing could be removed, many data-rich firms will be reluctant to loosen their lucrative grip on user information. Mr Zuckerberg’s declarations notwithstanding, don’t expect Facebook to follow Microsoft’s lead any time soon.■

或许真是这样。但这同时也指向了一个更大的问题。即使可以消除共享数据的技术和法律障碍,很多拥有大量数据的公司也不会心甘情愿放松对用户信息的掌控,因为这是它们丰厚利润的来源。尽管扎克伯格发布了声明,但不要指望Facebook会马上效法微软。