What can the gray wolf tell us about the future of data?

(Photo: Shutterstock)

In the dog-eat-dog world of data commercialization there are some fascinating parallels between where it’s headed and the resurgence of the gray wolf in Yellowstone National Park.

According to IBM CEO Ginni Rometty, only about 20% of the world’s data is searchable on the internet, but just like the shiny object attracts the most attention, you could be forgiven for thinking the start-up generation of data-hungry technology companies like Google, Facebook and LinkedIn have a monopoly on the world’s data and are the apex predators at top of the food chain consuming everything in their path. Not so, by a big margin.

IBM interviewed 12,854 C-Suite executives in 112 countries across 20 industries and found 72% believed that if their sector is going to be disrupted, it will be by the “old hands” such as themselves. Only 22% thought a start-up would be responsible for the shakeup. The survey demonstrated that the “old hands” or incumbents see disruption very differently and is in stark contrast to widely held views that disruption is only coming from nimble startups.

If only 20% of the world’s data is searchable, that means 80% is not, and that data is in fact owned by the well-establish incumbents at the top of the food chain of data, and these Fortune 500 companies are fighting back just like the gray wolf did in 1995.

In technical terms the data commercialization parallel in the food chain is called a “trophic cascade.” Translated, this means that the removal of the top predator from a food chain can raise the population of its prey, leading in turn to reductions of species at the next lower trophic level and so on.

To demonstrate the striking parallels to our world of data, let’s use a four-linked food chain containing carrots, rabbits, foxes and lions. Lions eat foxes, foxes eat rabbits and rabbits eat carrots. In the trucking world, drivers could represent carrots (or mushrooms for reasons we won’t go into), TMS, telematics and ELD companies could represent rabbits, IoT and supply chain data aggregators could represent foxes and the lions could be the incumbents which include large freight shippers, global equipment manufacturers and finance institutions. Take away the lions (the incumbents) at the top of the food chain, foxes (IoT data aggregators) get out of control and try to take over the world, rabbits (telematics vendors) decline in numbers and soon there are not enough carrots (drivers) to feed the masses.  

That’s exactly what happened with the top-of-the-food chain gray wolf in 1926 when it was eliminated after years of hunting. Without the top predator in the Yellowstone Park food chain to keep the elk population under control, the elk ate more grass and berries, reducing food sources for other animals including bear, beaver, foxes and rabbits. The loss of the apex predator was catastrophic to the ecosystem, to say the least.

Fast forward to 1995 when 14 gray wolves were reintroduced, the fewer elk that resulted allowed trees to grow higher than browsing level which allowed more species to thrive, more berries for bears, grass for rabbits and timber for beavers. Bison numbers increased also and today there are 400-450 wolves living in 10 distinct packs and with the apex predator back at the top the ecosystem. Yellowstone National Park has never been healthier.

Where are you in the food chain of data?

As we navigate through the rapidly changing world of data commercialization characterized by buzzwords including artificial intelligence, machine learning, deep learning, data analytics, predictive modeling, business intelligence and the catch-all Internet of Things, many wonder if the new tech-savvy, data-hungry start-ups actually know something the rest of us don’t.

It seems every new attempt to create a new business model or paradigm we end up with a new way to describe the same things we’ve been doing for years – using data to generate insights for customers to better manage their operations. Sure, the technology is new, but the need for domain expertise to translate data and help customers operationalize the new insight has never been greater.

That’s the food chain of data – there’s a natural order to things in the world of commercialized data where there’s a delicate interdependence with each other for survival. It’s a finely tuned ecosystem where everyone depends on each other.

Just like the food chain, depending on where you sit in the food chain of data depends on how much value and insight you create from your sea of data. Generally speaking, the lower you are in the food chain of data the less value and insight you create, and the more vulnerable you are to being consumed by predators higher up in the food chain.

Just ask rabbits who’ve been told by lions to send their telematics data to the foxes for free and then try to remain cost competitive with lions on the same playing field! In a truly functioning ecosystem of data everyone has to be remunerated for their data contribution, otherwise you end up with the trophic cascade effect.

What’s evident today is the lions at the top of the food chain of data are assuming their rightful place as the apex data owner of the worlds’ data, and make no mistake, they own the majority of the world’s hidden data and are actively looking for new ways to create value for you and me.

The foxes and rabbits have been running around telling anyone who’ll listen that the lions are dead and those who aggregate the most data win. But the lions are fighting back against the foxes and rabbits who spend too much time hiring seriously clever people that know how to build things but ignore that the most important piece of the puzzle – the domain expert that knows what to build and how to use it.

Carrots Revolt

Up until now the carrots haven’t had much of a say either, but since they are at the bottom of the food chain in the example above, they actually provide the majority of the raw data required for the rest of the food chain to consume. The problem is that they don’t get rewarded for their data contribution and that’s the next big change on the horizon – the traditional hierarchical food chain of data will evolve into a circular data ecosystem where all participants are interdependent on each other.

In turn everyone’s data has value, which means you and me AKA carrots, will be paid for the data we generate, so that the ecosystem of data maintains equilibrium. I’m not suggesting wolves will become vegetarians and eat carrots, but that everyone is connected and should understand the unique value of their contribution, no matter where they currently sit in the food chain of data.

Final Thought

Maybe instead of trading cryptocurrency in the Blockchain of Things (BoT) we’ll trade actual carrots instead to share the wealth.

Happy hunting!

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Dean Croke, Chief Analytics Officer, FreightWaves

Prior to FreightWaves, Dean lead Data Science teams at Omnitracs Analytics, FleetRisk Advisors and Spireon in addition to heading up Lancer’s long-haul truck insurance business. He has a strong trucking background in trucking operations, vehicle telematics, data science, business intelligence, data analytics, 24/7 workplace scheduling and human physiology. After pioneering the deployment of the trucking industry’s first predictive models in the mid-2000’s as one of the founders of FleetRisk Advisors, he has developed a specialty in creating operational insights in freight markets using vast data sets and visualization tools to operationalize data. Dean has a Bachelor of Business in Transport and Logistics. Dean’s trucking experience also extends to his days as an over-the-road driver in his native country Australia where in the process of covering over two million miles, he owned and operated some of the largest “road trains” in the world. He was also General Manager of the Australian Trucking Association (ATA) where he played a key role in the development of the TruckSafe and Fatigue Management Program – both alternative compliance programs which have been cited in the FMCSA’s recent “Beyond Compliance” initiative.