Diego Kuonen: Am I the hedgehog?

Andrea Deinert
5 min readOct 14, 2020
Diego Kuonen

Diego Kuonen is a statistical engineer and has been trapped in an experiment for almost 20 years. He has been experimenting with sustainable data culture. Above all, he proclaims this to his students. “They should take something for their future. Not just hard facts.” Diego Kuonen wants to raise data literacy among all of us and encourage responsible handling of data.

German version: here

And he almost thought he had no choice but to give up. But as so often, things turned out differently in this case. Because now everyone seems to have been stung by the digital tarantula and is acting hyper-digital. Hyper digital is when digitalization is misunderstood and leads to some kind of incomprehensible actionism. These days, many people are coming into contact with online conferences for the first time. These tools are explained in epic breadth like the telephone was over 100 years ago. The person who today manages to switch camera and sound on and off during video conferences is digital.

Wishful thinking

That may be true for schools. But not for companies and states. Now the true face of the extent to which digitization efforts from the past have succeeded is becoming apparent, Kuonen believes. And he gives a sobering testimony, but at the same time harbours a very special kind of wishful thinking.

He hopes that traditional data suppliers will mutate from simple processors to reliable, state-certified delivery services. What does he mean by this? “We can soon give the Federal Statistical Offices the responsibility of providing us with clean data and verified facts so that we have a trustworthy basis for our decisions in the event of the next crisis.

Statistical offices, which enjoy great trust among the population, could release their greatest asset for proven what-if scenarios and other knowledge gains from data, and state service providers would become providers of all their expertise and, by the way, spur a healthy data culture.

Do we suspect something? Exactly. Diego Kuonen is aiming for data excellence, the basis for a good data culture. And this crisis shows that this is not yet in place. Home office, homeschooling and home churching are a reflection of a lack of preparation. “Neither students, parents, teachers nor clergymen were asked whether they even had the appropriate skills and infrastructure at home. No, they simply had to do it. That is exactly the parallel I draw to this digital transformation. Everyone wants to be data-driven now. But I have to do the preliminary work first, otherwise, it won’t work. The fact that we didn’t have a solid layer underneath is now falling on our feet.

Taboo Zone Data Culture

Digital transformation, therefore, requires a transformation in thinking. “I have to take people with me, I actually have to establish a culture of critical maturity among data users and data providers. This new form of culture must allow data providers to assess why their data is used here and not there. They must be allowed to critically question whether their own data would be of any use at all.

So he says we have to change the perspective. Before we even consider a transformation to digital, we would first have to transform our attitude to it: “Not: We have the best possible products that come from data, but we have the best possible data for every question. That is true data culture, a healthy attitude to the value of data. From there we can then set off into the infinite depths of all data possibilities. But this is an absolute taboo zone for most companies; especially in society.

And, by the way, one could look even longer for the will to digital self-determination. Nobody understands that at all. No, it has to be the same with data as with other very complex basic ethical questions: My gut is mine — my data belongs to me. That is and remains a private and fundamental right. Corona is the booster for this form of long-overdue sensitization in the minds of all data donors. And Kuonen is pleased about this: “When downloading a free app, we have so far tacitly given our consent that the operators can do whatever they want with our data. This is not possible.”

The fighter for data freedom thought he had to give up. But he was wrong. Because now he is allowed to perceive delicate efforts by politicians to make genuine fact-based decisions. He believes that awareness of the data culture is now there. And so he even dares to look into the future. Perhaps everyone is tired of home offices and has had enough of digital meeting platforms.

What would be important to you now? “You should take a step back to look at the discussion about digital transformation in the light of data literacy, digital self-determination. These are the basic elements that have been missing from the discussion so far. There has been a lack of education. Now we have the chance to let a real data culture grow. And perhaps we no longer want to be the rabbit, but the hedgehog.

Now is also the time for good examples, Kuonen said, which will help future generations. Everyone now knows what data is and how it can be used. Corona is becoming a proxy term for this whole thing. “My youngest, who will soon be four years old, pronounces the word Corona three or four times a day. So, the name is somehow in the mind of every citizen.”

Diego Kuonen is a statistical engineer and has been trapped in an experiment for almost 20 years. He is experimenting with sustainable data culture. That’s where we started. He is now a liberated spirit who sees real potential for his mission. And finally, one thought, Mr Kuonen: How is the AI hypothetical actually doing? Hardly anyone is talking about it anymore: “It may be that it will take a back seat for the time being. AI also needs a data culture and all the other prerequisites. The “Life” teacher has given us enough homework to do when we leave the home office and go back to the “new normal”.

Thanks for the interview, Diego Kuonen!



Andrea Deinert

Journalist // Blogger // Podcaster with focus on Artificial Intelligence and Data Science /// AI Series — SAS Hidden Insights