Information is gushing, but all the data drilling is done by Americans

My Week

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The Independent Online

I started the week in Austria at an event hosted by Nestlé as part of the Salzburg Festival. Maurice Lévy, the chief executive of French advertising group Publicis, was there, arguing in a panel discussion about the “huge problem” of global imbalances in data.

The boss of Publicis, parent company of Saatchi & Saatchi, is worried that the world’s “new gold” or “new oil”, as he put it, is concentrated in the hands of three or four companies in America – Facebook, Google and friends.

It is not a new analogy, but an appropriate one. The build-up of digital data has been like the creation of a new oil reservoir, although those deposits have accrued over a few years of web preferences and sales figures, not centuries. Certainly data analytics – a service sold by everyone from IBM to PwC – requires skill to extract and refine sense from that slew of information.

I pressed Mr Lévy on whether the problem was that there were only four companies controlling the data gusher – or that they were all American. He suggested the latter, because he was uncomfortable with so much personal information coming under scrutiny from the US National Security Agency. But the former must rankle too. France, or Europe for that matter, is a long way from creating a Google of its own with the same data-gathering capabilities.

When volatility is unleashed, gold will be precious again

And what of “old” gold? The yellow stuff had an interesting week, easing in price after the devaluation of the yuan. India is still a huge buyer of gold, but Chinese consumer demand has more than doubled in the past five years. The tide has been going out globally with investors gaining more appetite for risk and turning back to equities. The World Gold Council said this week that demand touched a six-year low in the last quarter.

What is interesting is the broader impact of China’s efforts to let market forces take more of a role in setting the price of its currency. It spells bad news for commodities and is a bearish signal for the world economy, as Goldman Sachs has warned. In the longer term it might actually help the gold price, which has fallen far from its 2011 peak of $1,921.18 per ounce. Less state control means more volatility – means more demand for safe havens when the going gets tough.

We need some of Silicon Valley’s hunger to innovate

When I visited Mountain View, the home of Google, four years ago, there was a lot going on. It was just as Larry Page was taking up the role of chief executive – a decade after he had ceded control to chairman Eric Schmidt – and the feeling was Google needed to redefine itself as a company that saw a future beyond internet search.

Of the projects I visited then, Android was the one that has powered ahead to become the alternative smartphone technology to Apple and its App Store. Progress made by web browser Chrome and Google Apps has been drowned out somewhat.

In the interim, Mr Page has spent more time thinking big than thinking profitable, hence the smart-home technology and driverless cars adventures. I’m not sure this week’s reorganisation of Google into a new holding company called Alphabet makes a huge amount of difference, other than to remind the outside world that this is a corporation that won’t rest on its laurels – or comply with the strictures of Wall Street.

It also points to the pioneering spirit that is hardwired into Silicon Valley. Elon Musk, the thrillionaire behind Tesla electric cars, is another one shooting for the moon. His new commitment of $20m (£13m) as part of a $500m fundraising shows he has boundless energy – and cash – to explore the future of batteries and chargers.

The UK must keep pace in the global race to innovate. If Michelle Mone, the lingerie tycoon, can discover on behalf of David Cameron what stops people from setting up their own business, it would be a start.

Pearson faces challenge to be top of the class in education

Now that it is shorn of the Financial Times and The Economist magazine, Pearson has nothing to distract it from its mission to be the world’s top education company. Its investors do not appear to share the euphoria of management at this long-awaited development. They have marked the shares down more than a fifth since March, suggesting it is better to travel than arrive.

One concern is that Pearson, £1.1bn to the good after getting out of news, will be tempted back on to the acquisition trail just when it should be meshing all the assets it already has into a slicker operation.

That cash will be topped up by a chunky dividend from its share in the book publisher Penguin Random House later this year, or perhaps even the proceeds of another exit, if its partner Bertelsmann is ready to buy it out of the venture.

Another issue is that the US education market, still Pearson’s largest, is changing fast. The road from textbooks to tablets is a bumpy one, as shown this week by News Corporation giving up on the education division it once had high hopes for. Pearson boss John Fallon used to write speeches for John Prescott and knows plenty about straight talking. He can surely explain away worries that in a world where so much is free online, students are no more likely to pay for learning materials than they are to pay for news.

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