Personal data innovation for whom?

This post was originally delivered as a talk at Nesta’s Workshop, The Future of Personal Data and Privacy, 10 May 2017.

On the internet we constantly give out our information - we fill in forms, we browse websites, we watch videos, we like, comment and interact. By transferring everything we do onto the internet, our online lives become a manifestation of digital ‘work’.

In the current state of the personal data ecosystem, our data is given away and stored on a small number of platform providers often without the right to dictate how it is used or reused. After it is given away, services can resell the data in the name of ‘better service’.

At the moment, that’s just part of the deal. The major platforms didn’t really mean to be creepy. A lot of these organisations are just trying to be better. If you want them to give you a better, more personalised service, then they have to get to know more about you.

In this context personal data has become a powerful resource to know who we are, and to influence how, when and what we buy. Personal data is now a crucial commodity, but it is not a commodity because it’s precious. A commodity exists because there’s a market, and unless a market happens, the value of a commodity is unknown.

Right now the secondary data market is thriving, mainly involving the selling of inferential data for better targeting of consumers.

Many data controllers strip data of all personally-identifiable information. But using predictive analytics, they can combine data and then re-add identifiers with a number or ID. Once it’s recombined, it’s owned by the person who recombined it, not you.

So they’ve got your data, whether you want it or not. And there are externalities to all of this. For instance, there’s a temptation to cheat (through long user agreements), there’s opacity (it’s very hard to see where data is going) and there’s creep (finding more ways to extract profit from it).

"Take Napster, the secondary market for music. Quality was dubious, legality was questioned and it was later deemed illegal. We’re heading in the same direction for personal data."

We’ve seen this before. It wasn’t long ago that we had a secondary market of exchanges that didn't involve the source that produced it. Take Napster, the secondary market for music. Quality was dubious, legality was questioned and it was later deemed illegal. We’re heading in the same direction for personal data.

We all think we know the solution

A number of personal data stores are emerging that think they know the solution. The solution they are proposing is for people to take ownership of their own data, to become their own data controller.

But no-one is answering a number of big questions:

  • Who manages the sharing infrastructure?
  • Who polices the access to the data?
  • What are the services around it and who runs them?
  • Where is it sitting, and how is it maintained?

The value and worth of personal data is dictated by the data exchange infrastructure that can bring parties together to exchange.

You might own your data in the same way that you own a house. But if the data exchange infrastructure controls all the roads on which personal data travels, then who builds that infrastructure? Some personal data stores, for instance, will ask you to pay someone a toll to access the entire exchange.

A number of personal data platforms have been very good at raising investment., for instance, received £4.2 million. All of us are raising, including The Hub Of All Things where I’m the Project Lead.

There are also projects that don’t need to raise because they’re the government. Privacy preserving platforms such as Gov.Verify or Estonia and Singapore's federated identity systems are all examples of this.

But it's important to consider who controls and builds these platforms, whether the state, the market or whether it comes from users or communities themselves. If the future of our society depends on who controls the personal data exchange platform, and if it’s privately funded, then we could just be building the next Google.

"If the future of our society depends on who controls the personal data exchange platform, and if it’s privately funded, then we could just be building the next Google."

The multiple stakeholders of personal data exchange must collaboratively fund it. Even if the motivation is to use it for their own goals.

The Hub Of All Things (HAT)

The HAT is an innovation ecosystem for all the companies who want to use a private data account, supported by UK Research Council funding. We believe there are some design principles a personal data exchange should follow.

First, the personal data exchange platform must enable all necessary platform stakeholders. This includes public services (to build and maintain the infrastructure), private services (person-to-person exchange), community services and commercial propositions (building a market).

Second, even if the personal data stores are built on private or corporate clouds, the data exchanges should be built on the internet. The data exchange shouldn’t be proprietary, such as within a subnet or private network within a cloud system. It should use internet standard protocols that are open and transparent, and should allow community, public and private services to be built in an interoperable way (for example, through a single sign-on).

Third, the personal data exchange platform has to be future proof for all personal data uses. We believe that a personal data store should be owned by you, and it should always be owned by you, legally. This isn’t easy to achieve. While it’s difficult to fully own personal data, it’s possible to own a database. We want to give people their own private database.

Fourth, data exchanges must be actioned upon by users themselves. We think data exchanges must be actioned upon without the need for third party access (‘system admin’ access). The person has to be the data controller, giving the user a greater legal standing in the future of the internet. In this sense users become stakeholders in their own data, its uses, its quality and as digital assets.

Finally, the platform should be market-making. We think that other companies should be able to come in and start providing data accounts. They should be able to customise it in a way that is consistent with their own branding initiatives, and for their customers’ own data exchange use cases.

There are multiple roles to designing, building and scaling the personal data exchange, and the one that succeeds could dictate the society we become.

The Hub-of-all-Things (HAT) Foundation group is inviting all who are interested to innovate on the personal data economy to join our HAT Open Innovation platform at:


Irene Ng

Professor, University of Warwick