Starting a conversation – carbon paper for data

What if companies that used your data made it available for your use? What if they did it in a way that made it easy for you, or other organisations that you authorised, to understand and exploit your digital footprint?

Bodyheat eating robots

Imagine going to the gym to find out that the 20 minutes you did on the rowing machine contributed to a stockpile of electrical energy that the gym then sold on to the National Grid.

Or imagine Your Data was the bodyheat that you give off. As you walk around going about your business, thousands of tiny robots swarm around you gobbling up the bodyheat and feeding it back to the robot mothership.

It would feel like we’d crossed a line, tipping the balance of who gets value from being a person away from, well, people and rendering us little more than intensively farmed fungii grown in caves to support our super-evolved overlords.

And the thing about data is that, unlike body heat or kinetic energy, it can be copied and shared. You do not have to click twice on a button for two people to know you clicked on the button.

So on the one hand we have industries farming the byproduct of people’s everyday comings and goings, and on the other the fact in spite of the relative cheapness of doing so, these same industries coveting this data as though it were a finite resource, when in fact it isn’t.

When you consider that this kind of data is gathered by businesses facilitating day-to-day activities that are necessary or socially-necessary, it starts to seem like the game is rigged.

Facebook is a very pure example of this. They’ve created the best kind of gym (for them): we are compelled to go there; all our friends spend time there, and when we get there not only is the kinetic energy we generate using the equipment sold on at a profit, but so is our body heat, our sweat and information gleaned from the conversations we have while we’re in there – all absorbed by the swarm of tiny creepy robots.

Levelling the playing field: beginning a conversation

Creepiness aside, I’m concerned by just how stacked the deck is. I’m beginning a series of conversations with leaders in data, privacy and industry to see if we can bring some healthy balance to this system of use-data-exploitation-use. I’m starting with this:

What if companies that gathered and used your data made it systematically available for your use?

This would need to be protected by 1. strong digital identities and unlocked by an open, 2. community-curated ontology and a standards-based approach to 3. explicitly-consensual data sharing.

For me, this would begin to restore balance. The way I see it, only one half of the business/person relationship is realising value from our data. Organisations opening up this value to the user (the creator) of this data or their delegates would have, I believe, very interesting consequences, drive innovation and unlock unrealised potential in the sharing economy.

Combined with increasing levels of savviness in the UK population and the increasing sophistication of digital services, this could be the beginning of people taking back control of their data and a new era for technology enablement.