Data doesn’t have to be evil

June 5, 2019

*This article was originally published in the Süddeutsche Zeitung on 3 June 2019, by Martin Hogger. Martin and Sebastian had an interesting conversation, which we are sharing here for our English speaking audience:

Statice anonymizes user data so that businesses and industries can work with it while consumers are protected simultaneously.

Sometimes clever sentences are like ice-cream sticks made out of chewing gum. At first, they are difficult to chew and then turn stale much too fast. “Data is power” is one of them. It should be a warning, a warning for companies like Google and Facebook that collect data “that have not in vain been collected by secret services and other power apparatuses for centuries,” as Chaos Computer Club’s spokesman Frank Rieger wrote in an essay in 2014 for the Federal Agency for Civic Education. This sentence has since been repeated like a mantra, in all its variations. The same goes in the introduction of the General Data Protection Regulation. However, this often overshadowed the fact that data can also be many other things. Hope, for example, or progress. But how can companies combine both, hope without exploiting the powers of data?

The program can best be described as a digital clone

The solution could be provided by the start-up Statice. The program can best be described as a digital clone. Internet companies collect data about people, often at such a large scope and so detailed that it can reveal a complete biography. Statice uses this data to create a completely new data set that is almost statistically identical to the original — but the person behind it can no longer be identified, and is therefore anonymous. The goal: “We want to advance AI without giving people the feeling that their data is being stolen, à la Facebook,” says Sebastian Weyer, CEO and founder of the Berlin start-up.

The idea for Statice grew from the question “why do companies not share their data to collaborate more?”. That was in 2017. Weyer, now 26 years old, then worked for Wattx, a vehicle where Viessmann, the family-owned company known for its heating systems, searches for and invests in new ideas. Together with his colleague, Mikhail Dyakov, 29, Weyer found the answer. Companies do not work together more often and more closely because they have data protection concerns. They fear their data and technologies.

When GDPR came into force last year, a good chunk of the “Wild West” was tamed. It’s a good thing, says Weyer. On the one hand, consumers have a better overview of what companies do with their data. Companies, on the other hand, are only allowed to collect data from consumers for a predefined reason and are not allowed to pass it on without further ado.

“It’s understandable, but a pity,” says Weyer. New technologies often require the largest possible database. Anyone who has already collected data in the “Wild West” has an advantage because it since then has become significantly difficult. To close this gap is almost impossible, which further strengthens the power of the established companies.

New questions, new answers: What can medium-sized companies do? They can, says Weyer, form a data pool. But how can this work? “The data the algorithm learns from are only statistical evaluations, sometimes more complex and sometimes less,” explains Weyer. To put it simply: AI does not care whether data comes from x or y. At the same time, in order to comply with GDPR, the only important thing is that the shared data cannot be used to reveal the identity of any individual person. If only the name is taken out from a data package, it doesn’t mean that the author is truly anonymous. However, the more data you delete, the less suitable it is for machine learning. “It’s either too much or too little,” says Weyer.

In order to solve this problem, Weyer and Dyakov brought in reinforcements. The data scientist Omar Ali Fdal, 31, completed the founding team. Wattx helped with financing in the first year. Nevertheless, one has to be clear about the fact that there are many sacrifices, says Weyer. Earning a living is one thing, free time is another. He learned from this time: “It’s okay to take a step back and set boundaries. Only then you stay stable.” You always have the highest expectations of yourself. Before you know it, you work 80 hours a week. “You can’t fall for these things.”

Statice started in the health sector. They helped several health apps to analyze their data and pass it on to research. “The companies have a better product and doctors can now evaluate thousands of patient data they wouldn’t otherwise have.” A win-win situation.

At the beginning of this year, Statice collected a seven-figure sum from venture capitalists. Nevertheless, the founders remain the main shareholders. The trio wants to use the financial boost to expand into the financial and insurance sectors. Now we can really get going, says Weyer. His goal is to be the main bridge wherever data is shared. Because he is convinced: “Data doesn’t have to be evil”.

Translated & edited by Statice / Written by Martin Hogger

The original article appeared in the Süddeutsche Zeitung on 3 June 2019

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