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It’s time to start taking the control of our personal data seriously

Nesta’s new project DECODE aims to give people better control of their personal data.

How many people could tell you honestly that they know where all of the personal data they have created on the internet is, who has access to it and what it is used for? Our guess is it would not be many.

As a society, our actions suggest we are pretty relaxed about our personal data. While 67 per cent of people report, when surveyed, that they are concerned about what happens to their data, their behaviour does not seem to reflect this. There are nearly 2bn monthly active users of Facebook alone. Approximately 75 per cent of people agree to free social media website and app download terms and conditions without reading them. Perhaps that’s because getting something for free trumps what happens with your data when you use it. Or perhaps it’s because users simply don’t appreciate the bargain they’re making when they use such services.

Either way, recent news stories have cast doubt on whether we’re right to be so complacent. Reports in The Guardian have unveiled the role that personal data played in influencing voters in the Brexit referendum and the 2016 US presidential election. The recent global WannaCry cyber attack which crippled NHS computers confirms how vulnerable institutions become when they lose control of data access. Numerous stories have emerged of Internet of Things devices used in the home being hacked, from “smart” teddy bears to sex toys, revealing troves of personal and sensitive information.

It’s also becoming clear how valuable our data might be. A recent Economist feature article argues that data, not oil, is now the world’s most valuable commodity. Personal data is so valuable that StJohn Deakins, founder of data privacy organisation CitizenMe, estimates that Facebook generates $60 from each user in a western economy every year. Yet we see little of the value of our personal data ourselves.

We need new ways to give people control of their data

These stories confirm that the information we create about ourselves on the internet and through our personal devices has enormous power and value. This is especially true when personal data is aggregated at scale, at which point its uses can range from the benevolent to the malign.  This is why Nesta believes it is now more important than ever that we have greater control over our data. This is the objective of DECODE, our new project which we’re undertaking with 13 partner organisations from across the European Union.

By regaining control of our data, we may begin to see it generate social value rather than simply private profit

Over the next three years, we’ll be developing technology which gives people better control of their personal data. This technology will be piloted in Amsterdam and Barcelona. And we’ll be working with citizens in those cities to find ways for our technology to address the real-world problems they experience. The pilots will focus on three thematic areas: open democracy, the Internet of Things, and the sharing economy.

The DECODE technology will enable people to set rules on who can access their personal data, and for what purposes. By regaining control of our data, we may begin to see it generate social value rather than simply private profit. DECODE will do this by creating open data commons from data produced by individuals and devices.

Sharing data for the common good

A data commons is a shared resource – made accessible and intentionally open – rather than subject to restrictions through licensing. It enables everyone to contribute, access and use the data in the data commons. The data can be used an unlimited number of times and no one is excluded from accessing it. In this sense, data can be seen as an economic public good alongside more traditional examples such as street lights or clean air. Everyone can contribute, access and use the data in the data commons.

This could pool data of a range of different types. It could be data about air quality and other environmental factors, sentiment and mobility data about public places, health data, the data about resources we are willing to share in the collaborative economy, or data about participation in open democracy. With DECODE’s tools, the sharing of this data will be determined by the people who produce it. They will have the choice about who can access it, for which purposes and on which terms. People will also be able to set preferences about the level of anonymity, so that they cannot be identified by their data unless that is their preference. And if they share their data for the common good, they will not cede control over it.   

Our aim is that from open data commons, innovators, civic enthusiasts, cooperatives and entrepreneurs can build apps and services that respond to their needs and those of the wider community using shared data. This could pave the way for new economic models and relationships between people. There is huge promise in the idea of open data commons, but as our colleague Geoff Mulgan has written, this is an embryonic area which needs more focus for us to realise these benefits. This will be one of the core challenges for DECODE - to not just create data commons but to ensure that value can be created and understood as a result.

DECODE will run from 2017-2019 and will create technologies which are free and open source. There will be plenty of opportunities for people to get involved, from supporting our research, helping the technology develop, and being involved in the pilots in Amsterdam and Barcelona. If you’d like to know more about DECODE, please visit our website decodeproject.eu, follow us on Twitter @decodeproject, or email [email protected].

DECODE is an ambitious yet in some ways modest project, but we hope that by giving people back control of their data we can unlock a whole raft of benefits for society as a whole.

This blog post was originally published on the DECODE website. Read the original post.

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Tom Symons

Tom Symons

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Tom is the deputy mission director for the fairer start mission at Nesta.

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Theo Bass

Theo Bass

Theo Bass

Senior Researcher, Government Innovation

Theo was a Senior Researcher in Nesta's Research, Analysis and Policy Team

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Eddie Copeland

Eddie Copeland

Eddie Copeland

Director of Government Innovation

Eddie was Nesta's Director of Government Innovation.

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