CEOs at some of the nation's leading tech companies see boundless potential for big data and smarter, integrated systems to address major social challenges in areas ranging from medicine to education to transportation -- but at the same time, they worry that policymakers at home and abroad could stand in the way of that vision.
Top executives at firms such as Dell, IBM and Xerox gathered in the nation's capital this week under the auspices of the Technology CEO Council, bringing with them a message that the data economy is imperiled by concerns about security and privacy and protectionist policies that could limit the growth of cloud computing and balkanize the Internet.
[ Cut to the key news for technology development and IT management with the InfoWorld Daily newsletter, our summary of the top tech happenings. ]
"The biggest barriers I think that we see are not around the engineering. It's around regulation. It's around protectionism. It's around trust, or lack thereof. It's around policies and procedures," says Xerox Chairman and CEO Ursula Burns, who also chairs the CEO council.
"One of the biggest concerns that we have, and one of the reasons why we come together as a group, is to make sure that we can keep the playing field open to advancement, open to the possibilities of this new economy, and not close it off," Burns adds.
Big data potential needs free flow of information
In addressing the data economy, Burns and other CEOs on the council are offering policymakers a mixed message. On the one hand, gleaning meaningful insights from expansive data sets can have a transformative impact on industries such as healthcare that have been slow to adopt new technologies.
For instance, Dell, one of many tech giants building health IT businesses, maintains an archive of some 7 billion medical images, aggregated in a data set that can be mined for patterns and predictive analytics.
"There's lots that can be done with this data that was very, very siloed in the past," says company Chairman and CEO Michael Dell. "We're really just kind of scratching the surface."
On the other hand, the essential promise of the data economy that Dell and others envision relies on the free flow of information across distributed systems - and a foundation of trust that will give users the confidence to share their data with service providers.
Tech leaders see threats on both fronts.
"What could happen," Burns warns, "is that governments around the world figure out a way to restrict data and data portability and data usage and data movement in such a way that actually limits the full potential of this new economy."
Protectionism restricts data flow, hurts U.S. cloud providers
Many U.S. cloud firms warn against protectionist policies under consideration in foreign markets, particularly in Western Europe, which favor local service providers with requirements for local hosting or storage, or place restrictions on cross-border data flows.
In response, tech leaders lobby against those proposals overseas and seek to promote safeguards for cross-border data flows in U.S. trade policy.