Neil Tambe

I'm a Detroiter who happens to enjoy writing, national parks, orange juice, the performing arts, and fanciful socks. More than anything though, I aspire to be a good husband, father, and citizen.

The World When We All Own Our Own Data

I don't think we've even started scratching the surface of how our world could be made much better when it's enriched with data. One day, I think, we'll have software that helps us live our day-to-day lives with great ease. Maybe our bed knows exactly how to wake us up or our data exhaust could help us live healthier lifestyles. Maybe our cars will all talk to each other so that there's never a traffic jam again. Maybe we can more accurately manage and distribute food so that we almost never have spoiled leftovers. For this, somewhat idyllic, reality to come to life all of the data we emit hves to be networked. Software and machines will have to interface with lots of different kinds of data going between systems so that the data from one part of our lives can mash up with another part to create exponentially more valuable information. For example, how could we ever avoid traffic jams if our cars didn't talk to each other AND to our calendars?

I can see this happening in one of two ways. First, all the services we use in our lives (e.g., Amazon, Facebook, our cars, our personal fitness devices, our clothing, our e-mail...whatever) could negotiate agreements to combine and use data. Facebook would have an agreement with Google to share data and both would have an agreement with Amazon to share data, for example. This would require billions and billions of micro agreements between data producing companies and data consuming companies allowing access to data by us, the user. Maybe we as users wouldn't even get a say. After all, if companies own our data, do we even have a right to sway how it is used?

Or maybe, we as individuals could own all our own data. We could hire a data management company of our own choosing and that company could manage all the negotiations of access to our data for us, depending on our preferences. The data-based services we receive from companies - like facebook, our health insurer or even our grocery store, among other things - would be different based on data sharing preferences...the more data we elect to share, the more valuable services to us would likely be from all providers.

I like the second scenario much better (where individuals own and control access to their own data), because it simplifies the process of brokering access to data and it allows individual consumers to maintain the level of sharing they are comfortable with. Moreover, individual companies don't really have an incentive to play nice with their competitors for data-sharing purposes, even though it might be valuable to their shared customer (e.g., do you think facebook would ever share data with Google?) So if individuals don't own their own data, those data might not be shared as much. To be sure, in a world where individuals owned their own data, it would take a set of common standards for all companies to make sure the data were mashable between all companies using it. This isn't trivial. But honestly, I think it's possible.

I don't know when it will happen or what it will take, but I want to own all my own data even if it's just so I can share them again. I think by making such a move we'll be on the verge of a renaissance in consumer technology and we'll have a much better world as a result.

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It seems like there might be a few services that are starting to explore this area, pretty cool. There are also many legal questions here. I'm curious to see how the question of data ownership comes into the political, legal, and regulatory realm.