No future without data literacy

A guest article from Dirk Freytag, President of the German Association for the Digital Economy (BVDW)

Dirk Freytag, President of the BVDW

“Data is dangerous.” For years, that has been the main argument of countless debates that have taken place outside the realm of the digital economy. Media outlets, politicians, and civil society organizations usually paint a dystopian picture. The reality looks different.

This paradox isn’t just presenting major challenges for the digital economy – it concerns nothing less than Germany’s future viability, which is closely linked to data literacy. We all use data every day.

Data helps us improve our life and daily routine – from traffic data to fitness data and more. We all recognize the added value it brings to us. But as soon as we move away from that line of thought, the all-too-familiar German angst returns: “Data is dangerous.” The next sentence is then usually along the lines of: “After all, my data should be helping me, not someone else.” And that is one of the biggest problems we face. Germany’s lack of data literacy threatens to slow down its transition to a digitally future-proof and sovereign state.

Digital and data literacy are the foundation of an autonomous society.

If I weren’t the President of the German Association for the Digital Economy (BVDW), I could respond with: “Yeah, that’s just what the Germans are like.” But we don’t want to settle for that at the BVDW. We feel it’s necessary to encourage Germany to think positively about data. The D21-Digital-Index 2023/2024 clearly shows that even basic digital skills are essential for high resilience. A mere 50 percent of the German population possesses such skills. There has been hardly any change for years.

Improving data literacy should actually be a topic of great interest for economic players, politicians, and civil society. New developments obviously bring both opportunities and uncertainty. However, the cautious Germans are quickly being left behind as a nation against the backdrop of digitalization and the technologies associated with it.

The playing field is getting bigger and the pace is quicker. Artificial intelligence is one aspect driving that, but without data it’s just an empty shell.

In Europe and Germany, we’re already coming up against obstacles that are often restraining instead of empowering. Of course, it’s not just the political community that needs to take action; economic players must also demonstrate a greater willingness to share data. Without a wealth and breadth of data sources, the dream of AI made in Germany and the new business models that come with that will remain a far-off notion.

Data literacy was, is, and will be the key qualification

We live in a world that is volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous at the same time. That makes it all the more important to invest in data literacy as a key qualification, both on a societal and economic level.

It’s about having the ability to analyze and interpret data to make informed decisions.

For individuals, that means understanding what tools deliver what results and why tools deliver the results they deliver. It’s also about identifying what technologies can be used to their advantage for a specific purpose and being aware of the risks.

For businesses, that means fueling innovations that meet needs. It’s about exploring new business fields, strengthening competitiveness, and increasing efficiency and effectiveness. Other countries won’t wait for us, and not every player, whether governmental or not, will use technological advances for a good cause.

A data-literate society can overcome global challenges better and is more resilient and independent.

The solution is in the “how” and not the “but”

“Data is dangerous.” To change this reflex response, we need to finally have a conversation in society about the positive impact of data and its benefits to civil society, the economy, the scientific community, and every individual. In other words, we need to talk about the opportunities (the “how”) and not just about the risks (the “but”). To initiate that, we have to take action, and I explicitly call upon the digital economy to lead the way. Let’s get the ball rolling and encourage civil society, the political community, and the public sector to get on board. Data has the power to make a difference. That’s a fact, not just an empty statement. As a society, we can shape what kind of difference data can make.

Data has the power to make a difference. That’s not just a fact, but also the message behind one of the BVDW’s campaigns, which we launched in 2022 and will be running again this year. The goal is to highlight positive examples of data. We aim to educate people in order to pave the way for better data literacy. Ultimately, we’ll only be able to further enhance data literacy if every individual has at least a neutral opinion of the term “data”.

Data was, is, and will be the future. So, let’s embrace it and shape the future together.