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Will individuals ever own their data?

Imagine a future, perhaps one like this, where your data is a genuine asset. It is owned and controlled by you. You provision your data to the people and organisations you choose in ways that have value to you. In fact, when calculating your net worth, data is a key consideration. All of this and much, much more is the work of private organisations and governments collaborating to deliver value to citizens, customers, students, and patients. It’s the future you remember hearing crazy people talk about a decade ago – only now it’s real.

This is the story I’ve been telling myself for a while. This is the future I believe we will eventually live in. However, I’ve likely been part of the “crazy cohort” – the group of people evangelising on behalf of citizens, customers, students, and patients. The ones telling the world this is the future we need to work towards.

Because of this belief and the alignment with my previous experiences in product and strategy for startups and enterprises, I took advantage of an incredible opportunity to move to Europe and start working with Meeco, a world-first Life Management Platform.

The reason this is relevant is because of the epiphany I had at about 2:14pm on my second day of actual work. I came to the UK expecting the same pushback I had already experienced, expecting people to tell me, ‘Man, that sounds really great, but I just don’t see it. We’re not there and frankly, it’s not that realistic.’

To my surprise, this has not been my experience. The opinions and attitudes towards data, towards privacy, and towards shaping a future with people at the centre of a real data economy is incredibly mature, at least when comparing it to my expectation. The part of the market I am dealing with, both private enterprise and government, has already begun to move well past concept and theory.

Supported by evolving regulatory frameworks, such as The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and Payment Services Directive 2 (PSD2), through events like Ctrl-Shift’s PIE 2015 and the upcoming MyData 2016 event in Helsinki, and through the plethora of organisations actively building product to try and create new economic and societal value, this market feels on the verge of true creation.

This last week has brought the future I envisaged for years now much closer to reality.

So back to the question: will I ever actually own my data?

An Open Knowledge Finland working group, MyData, explains, “It is tempting to proclaim that individuals should own their data, but the concept of ownership as an exclusive right is difficult to apply to data. In most cases, multiple parties, including both the individuals and the organisations, have legitimate interests in the same datasets. For example, retail stores have rightful claims to use customer data that they collect using loyalty cards, while the individual card owners also have rights to the same data.”

All of this is true, but with evolving regulation comes the need for total transparency. Retailers collecting data need to do so on a permission basis, with consent, and need to explain the purpose for data collection and its use in the context of their business. This is not information that has freely flowed back to individuals at any point in the past.

An individual, and therefore their data, is multi-faceted. In any given situation, we exhibit behaviour driven by a persona – a part of ourselves we deem relevant to our context. For instance, when I’m in a strategic meeting with executives and our development team, sifting through qualitative and quantitative data to help support prioritisation of new features and capabilities, I act in a particular manner. This is one persona I exhibit on a daily basis. For simplicity’s sake, let’s call this persona Nathan Work.

So how about when I’m with my wife? Well, I may tell her the story of the riveting strategic meeting I had with the executives and product team, but my narrative is contextual. I may in fact be complaining about something I’m struggling with in the hope that, knowing how well she knows me, she will understand, see my perspective and provide support in only a way she could. The conversation might then immediately shift to how awesome the food we’re eating is, the complexity of the tannins in the wine and how later this evening we need to make a final decision on the bed frame for our new apartment. Let’s call this persona Nathan Husband – and yes, this is my life.

Then there’s Nathan Golf. Who’s Nathan Golf, you ask? Well, he’s the persona that used to be an elite golfer, and had grand ambitions of taking on the sporting world, conquering it in stunning fashion. He ended up injuring himself but has never quite lost the passion he once felt for the game. He checks www.pgatour.com regularly, watches videos on YouTube of Tiger Woods in his prime, and still practices his swing in the mirror on a regular basis. It’s still pretty good.

What about all of my other personas? I can guarantee there are quite a few more, yet we often wonder why it’s hard to understand, and better yet, effectively predict human behaviour. To put it simply, my context, my job-to-be-done or the thing I’m trying to achieve determines my persona, which determines my motivations, which determines my influences, which then determines how I make decisions and therefore the action I take.

In a world of near-infinite human complexity and nuance, how does data become a valued and contextually relevant asset for the individual? How might new engagement and business models be architected? How might the individual be empowered to be a core component of the value-chain? How might data become more than a bi-directional exchange between two parties and begin to facilitate a constant flow of value? How might organisations move beyond the cohort model to the Segment-of-one? Perhaps these, rather than merely, “will I ever own my data”, are the questions worth asking.

There’s no doubt the issue of ownership is going to continue to be contested. However, the ability for us to provide informed consent based on transparency is a right we deserve right now. And in fact, as the GDPR suggests, it’s a right we will have here in the European Union.

When Katryna Dow, the CEO of Meeco, first wrote the Meeco Manifesto, she started out with a simple statement, “Up until now the power to capture, analyse and profit from personal data has resided with business, government, and social networks. What if you and I had the same power?”

Simply put, just as the power of computing has moved from mainframes to wrist watches, so will the power of data move from the large organisations that control it to you and I. When the Manifesto was written, it was far ahead of its time, yet just as my vision for the future feels closer than ever, the Manifesto is now becoming reality.

As we see industries transformed by distributed and peer-to-peer models, the opportunity for ‘us’ to join and share in the value chain increases. The shift from products and services to experiences and outcomes warrants both our inclusion and share in the reward. When we provide context and intent, reuse the information we have already collected, remove friction, and set the terms for use, we are by default shaping the value-chain and limiting the risk and cost for the provider. As we remove the guesswork, the value of our information, to both parties, increases.

I asked Katryna to comment on this very topic:

“This isn’t about selling single data points, this is about the network effect the flow of our data enables. All too often we are asked to give up our identity and information when all that is really required is the confirmation of entitlement. Am I over 18? Does my postcode qualify for this service? Have I indicated permission? Do I have a reliable source to support my identity? These are yes and no questions that reframe sharing. We have become so accustomed to giving away small data points that we lose sight of the incredibly detailed picture we have provided. This detailed picture is incredibly valuable, and the mechanisms for us to share in the value we create are finally beginning to emerge.”

What’s interesting is that various people seem to have synthesised to a similar point. In this regard, I am far from alone. Brian Grimmer, a seasoned entrepreneur and early investor in Meeco, describes the next wave of the internet as what he calls the Fourth Order Effect – the transfer of entitlement and return to individuals in exchange for the real value their participation creates. You can read some detail on Brian’s blog here.

So coming full circle and going back to my epiphany at 2:14pm on my second day of work in Europe, I’ve seen tangible evidence of the emergence of this market, new capabilities, and re-imagined models. For my generation and the next, this is an incredible opportunity to help shape and share in the value of this evolution.

Image: by Ghada Sleiman.