Citizens of the UK voted in favor of Brexit on June 23. In the weeks since, the world has watched with bated breath to see what impacts and developments we should all expect — assuming Parliament accepts the referendum and proceeds to cut ties with Europe. What does Brexit mean, people want to know, for sectors like finance, immigration, tourism, and beyond? How wide-sweeping is the decision to break away from the EU, a 40-year-old bloc?
Here at VividCortex we also can't help but wonder, "How can we understand Brexit in terms of the databases surrounding it?" As we've looked at in previous blog posts, databases play central, constant roles in our modern day culture in everything from hurricane tracking to modern art museums, from election finances to music streaming services. If there's something in the news about how our culture is changing, there's a good chance that some sort of data system is also close at hand. For global news as massive as Brexit, we're curious about the ways in which relevant databases are changing and affecting the people connected to them.
As many publications have reported, the future of Britain's National Health Service has been closely tied to Brexit for many months. One of the most famous advertisements and concrete arguments used by the "Leave" campaign was to reallocate £350 million per week to the NHS, an amount that had previously gone to the EU. Leading Brexit politcians walked back that pledge almost immediately after the referendum passed, however, even calling it a mistake. But, as Forbes reports, the effects on Britain's health services go beyond mere funding and political backtracking; By leaving the Union, Britain has limited its own access to certain vital, intranational databases.
One of the powerful upsides of the EU's connectivity is freedom in sharing information across borders. In this case, that includes a database used for developing pharmaceutical products. "Companies seeking to conduct clinical trials for new drugs across the EU can run multi-country studies by registering on a single EU clinical trial database," writes Forbes' Reenita Das. "In a post-Brexit environment, companies in the UK seeking to conduct multi-country clinical trials will be forced to apply individually to each country, resulting in a huge administrative and cost burden."
The EU and the UK will now find themselves required to handle their own, separate databases. And if companies want to share or access data across countries, they'll need to find ways — both technical and legal — to bridge these databases. As Forbes points out, this will be expensive, ultimately and ironically increasing the current strains on the NHS' budget. Is database collaboration an aspect of Brexit that politicians and voters overlooked? It's difficult to say, though it seems likely that many voters would not know to even consider it. The reality and importance of data access are massive but largely invisible to the average citizen, even though the sharing of information is one of the great boons of modern day digital connectivity. Though subjects like internet censorship get a fair amount of attention — especially when a company like Google gets involved — there are other instances, like this one, when the flow of information is blocked and such a disruption goes largely ignored.
Similarly, the Independent has reported that if and when Brexit proceeds, Britain could lose access to vital crime and terrorism databases. It doesn't take much explanation to contextualize this development or demonstrate why databases are a key player in the security sector's future. In a spirit akin to sharing medical and pharmaceutical data, intelligence cooperation is a cornerstone for UK and EU safety. Rob Wainwright, the director of Europol, has warned that the UK's police forces rely daily on collaboration with the EU. Though other officials have claimed that reliance is minimal and that the UK will function perfectly well without it, it's easy to imagine how important porous data sharing is between these nations' security organizations.
It becomes pretty clear that one of the biggest unknown factors embedded in Brexit is how these once-shared databases will allow for continued sharing in the future. It's also interesting to consider how well British voters may have understood the expenses and costs implicit in databases, which is an eminently modern notion. Though the public seemed very quick to grasp and respond to the threat of Brexit interrupting the production of Game of Thrones (it won't!), these database-centric impacts are considerably less tangible — and popular — even as they're (...arguably) more pertinent to voters' real lives.
There's at least one piece of exciting, positive, data news to come out of Brexit: the potential use of the UK's departure as an occasion to revolutionize the blockchain. A powerfully optimistic article published this week by Fortune outlines and explains how the development of the blockchain distributed database could manage to satisfy both those people excited by Brexit and those despairing over it. Fortune's Dan Tapscott and Alex Tapscott argue that now is an ideal moment for the blockchain — the technology that makes Bitcoin possible — to become a central piece of our social systems by asking, "What better time to fix a broken monetary system than in the midst of currency crisis?" It's a mordant question and strikingly different in tone than that those uttered by the kinds of critics who would also use the word "crisis" — in the shadow of emergency, the Tapscotts see the glimmer of opportunity.
The Tapscotts' position is partially founded on the fact that many of England's banks have already shown an interest and investment in blockchain currency models; with Brexit, London will face pressure to remain innovative and germane as a global economic leader. The blockchain offers the opportunity to do so. "If wielded correctly," they write, "[the blockchain] could provide the foundation for a more prosperous Europe. It is also the UK’s best hope at fulfilling the 'Leavers' lofty promises of a more global and dynamic Britain." From there, as the article presents it, the future looks shiny, new, and hopeful.
And surely many critics would disagree, unwilling to place quite so many eggs in the basket that is the blockchain. But nonetheless, it's fascinating to see a database technology at the center of a sunnier take about the UK's future. While healthcare and security systems appear to be at risk because Brexit could put a hole in the UK's ability to access databases, is it really possible that a similar vacuum in the world of economics could present a chance for progress? It remains to be seen — but no matter where you look, data and how people access are central concerns for Brexit's future — and that of the world's.
Of course, databases are only as powerful and helpful as their users' ability to apply their contents, but at the heart of these concerns and hopes is the question of sharing information and knowledge.