The Devil is in the Data?

04 June 2018
This year’s PRMC student forum explored how the communications industry interacts with, and leverages big data.

Big data currently has an ugly media rap, creating fear and mistrust. Think Cambridge Analytica, and the noise around Google’s data practices. While questionable ethically, these are examples of the practical applications of data in communication. Data can tell businesses a story about consumers — providing insight into their preferences and behaviour, offering opportunities to create and deliver targeted communications. Sounds like a communicator’s dream, right? Or like Newscorp executive Peter Judd suggested, does it signal the end of independent thought, personal autonomy and even democracy?

We didn’t leave with all the answers, but we did walk away with a lot to consider:

  • Don Sharples from Altometer Business Intelligence made it clear that the way we use and collect data is continually evolving with disruptive technology and our need to “surprise and delight”. Audience segmentation is turning into a fine art. More than ever, we are able to drill down data to pinpoint audiences and tailor communications so our voices don’t fall on deaf ears.
  • Many speakers remarked how data is collected and used has ethical implications. The algorithms that process data can be biased, and how it is given meaning can have enormous impact on people. There is a need for transparency, and for lawmakers and regulatory bodies to catch up with the technology to ensure that the risk of biased data and algorithms are mitigated.


Mathematician and data scientist Cathy O’Neil spoke at Ted in 2017 on how “objective” algorithms can in fact reinforce human bias.


  • Peter Judd, from Newscorp raised the growing need for communication professionals that understand data. This means having the ability to enquire and extract insights.
  • Data isn’t compelling until we give it context and meaning. Nick from Think HQ highlighted that our value as communications professionals is in our ability to leverage information to make compelling stories.


Data is a tool, and while its collection and use is currently in debate in the media, it’s important to remember that it’s how we use it, not if we should, that is the issue.

We’ve seen amazing outcomes brought about through data. During his talk at the forum, Shaz Mohapatra from Meltwater made his case for data with Australia’s vote for marriage equality, and the analytics behind the tourism boom caused by one picture of Roger Federer.

Telstra’s Rebecca Hawkins provided an excellent case for psychographics, enabling her team to target audiences with specific interests in live streaming and extreme sport.

Other examples include scientific breakthroughs, medical advancements, and insight into social issues brought about through research and data analysis.

Even closer to home is Think HQ’s work with the Social Research Centre’s The Life in Australia Historic Event Survey and the Scanlon Foundation’s Mapping Social Cohesion report. In both instances, data from research was transformed into engaging creative and media activities to tell important stories and spark meaningful discussions amongst Australians.

Big data’s applications are constantly evolving and adding value to both businesses and communities. While there are serious questions that need addressing, the question isn't whether we should use data, but how we can ethically leverage it as a communications tool.


Photo by ev on Unsplash