Reclaiming personal data for the common good

Theo Bass
Monday 18th September 2017


Personal data has become the central driving force for value creation on the web, as people have been content to sign away use of their information in return for a range of ‘free’ services. For many, this has simply felt like part of the deal. It makes sense for companies to know more about their users in order to provide a more efficient service and more personalised advertisements.

But the side-effect has been a rapid consolidation of power among internet firms, largely because those that were able to use data to create the largest user-base in turn benefited from positively reinforcing network effects. Some of our most important infrastructures are now unaccountable, driven by incentives that are often against our interests - we’re not just their customers, but also a commodity which they sell.

In turn, some of the potential value of the internet is not being realised. There is little incentive for companies to explore the untapped economic and social value available in the data which they collect, since it’s far more profitable to continue with advertising-driven business models.

Data as a common good

For many years it’s been a cliche to claim that information or data are the new oil. This fits well for the purposes of commodifying and selling data, but the analogy poorly matches data’s core properties. Oil is a scarce physical resource. Data and information by contrast can be replicated without limit and often become more valuable the more they are shared.

Open data has shown the value that the free circulation of data can have in the form of additional innovation, entrepreneurialism and scrutiny. A classic example is Citymapper, a global route planning app which was built on data provided first by the Greater London Authority’s open data store. In our own work, the D-CENT project has tested how open APIs like Helsinki’s Open Ahjo dataset could make the decisions of local government more accountable and easier to monitor.

Meanwhile, the breadth and depth of personal information generated about us is exploding. This information has extraordinary potential to deliver personal and public value. Data from wearables, connected devices, or other digital trails left behind about our behaviour have shown that they can help policymakers make better decisions, equip charities to respond better to natural disasters, and even allow medical researchers to better understand or predict diseases.

But unlike open data, personal data generates tensions that can be difficult to reconcile. While data gains most of its value as a resource to be circulated and used freely, there are considerable risks to sharing it too. These include risks of the data falling into wrong or incompetent hands, risks of revealing more about us than we’re comfortable with, or even risks of data being used against us.

Piloting practical alternatives

The argument of our new report for DECODE is that more of the social value of personal data can be discovered by tools and platforms that give people the power to decide how their data is used. We need to flip the current model on its head, giving people back full control and respecting our data protection and fundamental rights framework.

The report describes how this might pave the way for a fairer distribution of the value generated by data, while opening up new use-cases that are valuable to government, society and individuals themselves. In order to achieve this vision, the DECODE project will develop and test the following:

Flexible rules to give people full control:  There is currently a lack of  technical and legal norms that would allow people to control and share data on their own terms. If this were possible, then people might be able to share their data for the public good, or publish it as anonymised open data under specific conditions, or for specific use-cases (say, non-commercial purposes). DECODE is working with the Making Sense project and Barcelona City Council to assist local communities with new forms of citizen sensing. The pilots will tackle the challenges of collating, storing and sharing data anonymously to influence policy on the city’s digital democracy platform Decidim (part of the D-CENT toolkit).

Trusted platforms to realise the collective value of data: Much of the opportunity will only be realised where individuals are able to pool their data together to leverage its potential economic and social value. Platform cooperatives offer a feasible model, highlighting the potential of digital technologies to help members collectively govern themselves. Effective data sharing has to be underpinned by high levels of user trust, and platform co-ops achieve this by embedding openness, respect for individual users’ privacy, and democratic participation over how decisions are made. DECODE is working with two platform co-ops – a neighbourhood social networking site called Gebied Online; and a democratic alternative to Airbnb in Amsterdam called FairBnB – to test new privacy-preserving features and granular data sharing options.

Policies to support privacy-preserving data use in two cities:  DECODE is partnered with Barcelona and Amsterdam city councils where there are links to active digital social innovation communities in makerspaces and innovation labs across the two cities. In terms of policy initiatives, the city councils will host hackathons, challenge prizes, regular meetups and large scale events and conferences to engage a range of different stakeholders, and to raise awareness about the pilot use-cases.

Finally ...

In our new report, we describe the problems with the current personal data economy, and explore the vision of DECODE through a range of future scenarios developed during a workshop at Nesta in May. We also outline the trends that DECODE is building on to create an alternative to the status quo. To read the report click here, and follow us on Twitter for more information about the pilots @decodeproject.