World Economic Forum and Personal Data as an Asset Class

At this last week’s Personal Data Deep Dive in Palo Alto, I had a chance to talk with some of the folks working with the World Economic Forum about their recent report Personal Data: The Emergence of a New Asset Class.

While I remain concerned about how the institutions of globalization might co-opt personal data to further their own ends, it almost certainly isn’t as bad as recently discussed on the Project VRM mailing list.

My realization: of course WEF would see data as an asset class. If it weren’t, it wouldn’t even make it onto their radar. Complaining about the WEF seeing personal data as an asset is a bit like complaining that Mozart sees everything as music.  Sure, it might be a limited framework and might be abused if applied too broadly, but it’s perhaps the most real way for the WEF to think about how personal data will lead to changes in the global economy.

It is worth understanding that the paper is an early step in acculturating Fortune 1000 CEOs to a new reality about user-driven services, volunteered personal information, and the entire VRM gestalt. It’s a baby step.

But it is a step.

Indeed, the folks at the workshop were well aware of the kind of reaction they are bound to get from communities like VRM. Bottom up groups tends to distrust top-down institutions.  Fair enough. But think about it from the perspective of the folks inside the WEF that are fighting the good fight, not just because it’s moral or politic, but because it is perhaps the only viable route beyond the information overload facing our entire information infrastructure.  Those folks need to light the minds of global business leaders without igniting fear that the house is on fire.

Posted in Personal Data Store, ProjectVRM, Vendor Relationship Management | 4 Comments

Constellations of Privacy

Public v PrivatePrivacy issues dominate the global debate about protecting the rights of individuals online. Yet, the conversation almost entirely misses a vital point: public or private isn’t a black or white choice and it never has been.

Sociologists have long recognized that there is no single “public”, no monolithic context where social norms congeal and deviant behavior is shunned. Instead, we’ve recognized that each of us engages in multiple, distinct publics, with their own boundaries and rules of etiquette. We act one way at PTA meetings, another in Las Vegas, yet again a third way at work. These are different flavors of public behavior and yet we expect most people to respect boundaries between these areas.  We manage these publics as easily and naturally as we greet a newcomer to the workplace. We do it without conscious effort, but with a sensitivity to the place and moment.

We also constantly manage any number of private contexts, where certain topics and behaviors are understood to be held in confidence, from family matters and Santa Claus to corporate secrets. Just as there is no monolithic “public”, there is no single “private” domain, where insiders know everything and outsiders know nothing. We share confidences with our kids, our spouses, our lawyers, our doctors, our psychiatrists, our bartenders, our business partners, all with certain, often unstated, rules about appropriate use and redistribution. Sure, these confidences are occasionally broken, but when they are, it violates our privacy and breaks trust. Frackin’ jerks!

Privacy leaks occur when information entrusted to one context finds its way into another: when our doctor’s receptionist tells our co-worker a bit too much about our visit, a boss overhears an embarrassing story about where we really were last Monday, or an ex tells her gossiping friends about our intimate moments. These context violations hurt whether they occur between “private” contexts or “public” ones. The issue isn’t whether something was said or done in “public” or “private”. The issue is the boundary breaking, the violation of expectations, and the betrayal of trust.

Our worlds are not defined by a single boundary between public and private, but by a constellation of privacy, comprised of multiple, distinct contexts, each with their own set of participants and expectations. There are literally billions and billions of contexts worldwide, each of us participating in dozens, perhaps hundreds.

We’ve been figuring this out for a long time. Over thousands of years, we’ve developed social norms that help us navigate different contexts. Space and time are our most common tools, marking the boundaries between strip clubs, schools, churches, homes, bedrooms, and restrooms. Don’t interrupt the magician, don’t talk during mass, don’t make personal calls on company time. Sometimes it’s topical, like spelling out “S.A.N.T.A” to keep the magic of Christmas alive.  These social rules keep naked people out of the cafeteria and accountants out of our bathroom and thank goodness for that!

Today, we are faced with a rapidly growing digital domain with new boundaries and connections, where uncertain rules confound expectations. In a relatively short period, huge portions of our daily lives have moved online, into contexts that lack clear social norms. These online services are often interpreted and promoted as being far more discreet then they actually are. We post a photo to Facebook to share with our friends, forgetting for a moment that co-workers or students might also see that indulgent image. We post a political rant on our blog, only to later have it come up in a job interview. Our Foursquare sign-ins get linked to Twitter without realizing it… and now our location is in the public stream for anyone to find. To make matters worse, many of these services regularly release new features or change their privacy policies… the rules are not just uncertain, they keep changing.

NGC 1566 NASA Spitzer Space Telescope CollectionFocusing on public verses private misses the point. The analog world was never that black and white, why would we expect it to be that way online? Rather than an opt-in or opt-out, track or do-not-track, we need a solution that allows us to participate with the same shades of gray we use in the rest of our lives. This isn’t about the end of privacy nor is it about the inevitability of living in public. It’s about figuring out a new set of viable contexts with clear, understandable boundaries, rules, and participants. It’s about giving people as clear and simple control over their online social contexts as we have in the analog world.

We should be able to explicitly manage our online contexts: what we share, with whom, for what purpose, and with what constraints. Once we do that, the overly simplistic model of public verses private will yield to a beautiful constellation of privacy that is more understandable, more flexible, more realistic, and more empowering.

So, put down your pen and step away from the regulatorium. The last thing we need is half-baked black and white thinking turned into law.

Posted in Information Sharing, Shared Information, User Driven Services, Vendor Relationship Management | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

Facebook as Personal Data Store

With over 150 million people using Facebook Connect every month at over 1 million websites, Facebook has ushered in a new era, as the world’s largest personal data store.

Personal Data Stores

Personal data stores allow individuals to share online data with service providers. Facebook Connect users can give third-party web sites like Digg, Amazon, and YouTube access to information stored at Facebook, turning Facebook into a personal data store for over 500 million people.

What makes personal data stores special is the seamless sharing with websites for real-time personalization of the web. It’s more than just file back-up or synchronization.  It’s not just publishing “content” to our friends or the public. Personal data stores allow us to bring our information to websites when we want to. It’s a way to treat the user as the point of integration.

Personal data stores can be anywhere, shared with websites whenever we want. Consider giving FedexKinko‘s a link to a Flickr account so they can download photos to print a new calendar. Or giving a new doctor permission to access our personal health history rather than filling out a paper form while we sit in the waiting room. Or giving a website access to our Outlook contact list on our desktop computer so they can give us birthday reminders and gift suggestions. The key is user-managed access, wherever the data lives. Facebook Connect gives this kind of access control over all the data we store at Facebook, enabling web-wide personalization built around the individual.


In recent years, mash-ups and real-time APIs have made it easier and easier for companies to combine information from different services into a single user experience. Instead of building bigger and more complicated proprietary data silos, companies take advantage of services like Google Maps and IP-address geolocation, using real-time information to enhance their websites.

Some service are even built around other companies’ data: Twitter clients like Seesmic and Tweetdeck, which access our Twitter data on our behalf; Trillian, which works with various instant messaging networks; and Mint, which pulls in our financial data from hundreds of websites. The “real-time web” is constructed on the fly, using linked data and real-time APIs to dynamically customize services for each of us.

Personal data stores let us bring our own data to the mash-up party. Not only do we have better control over who sees what, we can provide more timely, higher quality data than service providers can get from other sources. Effective integration with personal data stores means no more ads for that car we’ve already bought; no more recommendations based on false assumptions. Unfortunately, data in the wild is constantly becoming outdated, miscopied, and misconstrued, because that’s the best companies can do using the billions of dollars worth of proprietary data that’s gathered about us rather than provided by us. Personal data stores easily allow individuals to give the most relevant, most up-to-date information to just those companies we want to do business with. That means not just better data, but more intimate relationships with our favorite companies and organizations.

Perhaps the most liberating aspect of personal data stores is that everyone gets to have as many as we want. We all have our favorite websites for different online activities. As those sites open up their data with a user-driven permissions mechanism, they become personal data stores. So, whether it’s YouTube for videos, Flickr for Photos, Foursquare for location updates, TripIt for travel plans, or RunKeeper for exercise data, we get to bring our best data with us wherever we go. Savvy websites pull in this high quality data to personalize our visits, while those with unique data open it up for use elsewhere to maximize value to their users, which is exactly what Facebook is doing with Facebook Connect.

Facebook Connect

Facebook Connect makes this kind of access simple for everyone, with industry changing adoption rates. Over 66% of the top 100 websites and over 1 million total websites now integrate with Facebook in some way. Nearly 1/3 of Facebook users—over 150 million people—use Facebook Connect every month. Every time we do, we give websites access to information stored in our Facebook accounts, such as our name, gender, names of our friends, and all the posts currently on our wall or posted by us. It’s an archetypal personal data store, with highly credible and timely data in the form of our friend list and our status updates. Sure, Facebook Connect is still far too limited in the amount of information we can store and we lack control over how that information gets used… but architecturally, Facebook has changed the game for a vast portion of the World Wide Web.

To find out what information Facebook is sharing, I built a website called “I Shared What?!?“, an information sharing simulator for Facebook. The site uses javascript and Facebook Connect to display everything it can get from Facebook. Visitors see in specific detail exactly what they share when hitting the “allow” button in the Facebook Connect permissions dialog.

Facebook uses open standard technology to bring mash-ups to a new level, built on information provided directly by the user, in real-time, with minimal fuss or bother. There are shortcomings, of course. A lot of them, but I’ll save those for future posts. For now, think of Facebook as the 800 pound icebreaker of a new way for companies to connect with their customers.

To this veteran VRM evangelist, Facebook has done more in 2010 to usher in the era of the personal data store than anyone, ever. In one fell swoop, Facebook launched a World Wide Web built around the individual instead of websites, introducing the personal data store to 500 million people and over one million websites.

Unexpectedly, Facebook has moved VRM from a conversation about envisioning a future to one about deployed services with real users, being adopted by real companies, today. We still have a lot of work to do to figure out how to make this all work right—legally, financially, technically—but it’s illuminating and inspiring to see the successes and failures of real, widely-deployed services. Seeing what Amazon or Rotten Tomatos or Pandora do with information from a real personal data store moves the conversation forward in ways no theoretical argument can.

There remain significant privacy issues and far too much proprietary lock-in, but for the first time, we can point to a mainstream service and say “Like that!  That’s what we’ve been talking about. But different!”

Posted in Information Sharing, Personal Data Store, ProjectVRM | Tagged , , , , , , , | 12 Comments

Personal Data Stores, Exchanges, and Applications

Words matter.

In the last few years, we in the VRM community have been using term “personal data store” as cornerstone concept.  We all understood we were talking about the same thing: a VRM approach for allowing people to use share personal information with third- (and fourth-) party service providers on their own terms.

Yet as our community grows, it has become clear that the Personal Data Store is but one aspect of a complete system, one we might as well call the Personal Data Architecture. As developers get more traction with their technology and the marketplace, it gets more and more useful to delineate the elements of the architecture more rigorously.

To do that, Doc Searls, Craig Burton, Iain Henderson, Kaliya Hamlin, and I set some time aside after the VRM+CRM 2010 Workshop. Like the ongoing VRM conversation, it was a rolling evolution of a dialog. It started with just Craig & Iain with the rest of us showing up and participating throughout the afternoon. The core agreement is the terms I present here.  I’ll post a following up with some new ideas in a few days.

These are the key definitions underlying the Personal Data Architecture at the core of VRM and all of our work:

Personal data store – a service where data is actually stored, with the ability to provision access to that data by permissioned applications; may be distributed and/or replicated across multiple physical stores.

Personal data exchange – a service where an individual manages personal data store permissions.

Personal data API – the interface a permissioned application uses for accessing personal data stores and personal data exchanges.

Personal data application – a service permissioned by an individual to access their personal data store for particular use of specific information. Also an “app”.

Service – an instance of software running on a machine.

Individual – a living human being.

Bonus Term: (which wasn’t the topic of this particular meeting, but syncs up with the work Iain and I are doing over at the Kantara Initiative’s Information Sharing Work Group.)

Information Sharing agreement – an agreement between the discloser and the recipient governing the permissioned use of specific personal information.

This language will continue to evolve, I’m sure. For now, this is a good snapshot for those of us building systems for sharing information between users and applications and for using that shared information.

So, hopefully, the next time you hear PDS, you’ll know what it is…

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Looking for feedback on pRFP and Information Sharing

At the VRM+CRM workshop last month, we (the Kantara ISWG) released two papers for comment.

One on the Personal Request For Proposal (pRFP) Engagement Model and the other the Information Sharing Report.

The first is a look at a the negotiation stage in the Car Buying Engagement Model, which paints a detailed picture of one person’s experience through the entire Customer-Supplier Engagement Framework for a new car.  Think of this as “car buying VRM style.” In the pRFP Engagement Model, we do a deep dive on how Sally would use a pRFP broker to buy a new car.

The second is a report placing Information Sharing in the global context. Based on a comprehensive literature review by Mark Lizar, the ISWG takes a look at the historical conversations about privacy and data protection to illustrate how we see Information Sharing as part of an emerging solution to managing the increasing risks and challenges of individuals sharing personal information online.

If you have an interest, please take a look and give us some feedback. We’ll be incorporating input from the comment period starting next week, September 13, 2010. Extended to September 27, 2010.

I hope to hear from you.

Posted in Information Sharing, Personal Data Store, ProjectVRM, Shared Information, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Asymmetry by Choice

Perhaps the most powerful form of asymmetric information is missing from JP Rangaswami’s post addressing whether the web is making us dumber. I agree with the core point of JP’s article, but I think he oversimplifies the argument on asymmetry in a way that misses something important about the power of information.

JP defines four types of informational asymmetry, which he argues is key for information to have power:

Asymmetry-by-access — You can get it, they can’t.

Asymmetry-in-creation — You create it, you can control access or have unique benefit from it.

Asymmetry-in-education — The information may be symmetrically available, but only “experts” can make effective use of it.This could also be called asymmetry-by-capability: the capability to utilize information more effectively than others.

Asymmetry-by-design — Take abundant information and design a system to create scarcity. For example, the iPhone (or Android) app store as the only – (or dominant) way to get new apps on your phone.

JP goes on to argue that

This approach, asymmetry-by-creation, and its alter ego, asymmetry-by-design, are about creating artificial scarcity. This is fundamentally doomed. I’ve said it many times. Every artificial scarcity will be met by an equal and opposite artificial abundance.

With all due respect, I must politely disagree.  At first, I thought it was a flaw in the argument about asymmetry, but then I realized it was perhaps because I was considering a fifth asymmetry that simply didn’t fit JP’s mold.

Asymmetry-by-choice – The information is shared with mutual agreement by all parties to respect certain limits, typically requested by the discloser, although often required by regulators. This asymmetry is typically  bootstrapped from asymmetry-by-creation and maintained as asymmetry-by-access.

One example: I tell my therapist things because I know they won’t get revealed. The therapist agrees to keep that information in confidence because she knows that if she doesn’t, I won’t reveal it. After the fact, she keeps her promise because she knows that the ethical, legal, and financial consequences aren’t worth breaking it. This is a good thing.

A second example: non-disclosure agreements (NDAs). A receiving party agrees to respect the rights in confidential information in order to better understand the disclosing party’s business. Normally, the discloser wouldn’t be comfortable disclosing certain information, but that would prevent the parties from pursuing mutually beneficial business interests. Only with assurances by the receiving party is the disclosing party comfortable revealing information that ultimately, may be vital to forging a more sustainable, more meaningful, and more profitable relationship. The NDA allows the two parties to continue the conversation with a certain level of expectation about subsequent use of the disclosed information. This is a good thing.

These types of voluntary acceptance of asymmetry in information are the fabric of relationships. We trust people with sensitive information when we believe they will respect our privacy.

I don’t see abundance undoing that. Either the untrustworthy recipient develops a reputation for indescretion and is cut off, or the entire system would have to preclude any privacy at all. In that latter scenario, it would become impossible to share our thoughts and ideas, our dreams and passions, without divulging it to the world. We would stop sharing and shut down those thoughts altogether rather than allow ourselves to become vulnerable to passing strangers and the powers that be. Such a world of totalitarian omniscience would be unbearable and unsustainable. Human beings need to be able to trust one another.  Friends need to be able to talk to friends without broadcasting to the world. Otherwise, we are just cogs in a vast social order over which we have almost no control.

Asymmetry-by-choice, whether formalized in an NDA, regulated by law, or just understood between close friends, is part of the weft and weave of modern society.

The power of asymmetry-by-choice is the power of relationships. When we can trust someone else with our secrets, we gain. When we can’t, we are limited to just whatever we can do with that information in isolation.

This is a core part of what we are doing with VRM and the ISWG. Vendor Relationship Management (VRM) is about helping users get the most out of their relationships with vendors. And those relationships depend on Vendors respecting the directives of their customers, especially around asymmetric information. The Information Sharing Work Group (ISWG) is developing scenarios and legal agreements that enable individuals to share information with service providers on their own terms. The notion of a personal data store is predicated on providing privileged information to service providers, dynamically, with full assurance and the backing of the law. The receiving service providers can then provide enhanced, customized services based on the content of that data store… and individuals can rest assured that law abiding service providers will respect the terms they’ve requested.

I think the value of this asymmetry-by-choice is about artificial scarcity, in that it is constructed through voluntary agreement rather than the mechanics/electronics of the situation, but it is also about voluntary relationships, and that is why it is so powerful and essential.

Posted in Information Sharing, Personal Data Store, ProjectVRM, Shared Information, User Driven Services, Vendor Relationship Management | 4 Comments

Steve Blank at the Pescadrome in Santa Barbara April 14, 2010

Steve Blank, Entrepreneur and Author

Steve Blank, Entrepreneur and Author

Steve Blank, Silicon Valley serial entrepreneur and author of Four Steps to the Epiphany, will be presenting at the Fishbon Event Lab, Wednesday April 14 in Santa Barbara. The Event Lab starts at 7ish with a potluck barbecue, followed by the presentation at around 8:30.

Steve’s startup experiences include E.piphany, Zilog, MIPS Computers, Convergent Technologies, Ardent, SuperMac, ESL and Rocket Science Games. Total score: two large craters (Rocket Science and Ardent), one bubble home run (E.piphany) and several base hits.

After he retired, he wrote a book (actually his class text) about building early stage companies called Four Steps to the Epiphany. He now teaches entrepreneurship to both undergraduate and graduate students at U.C. Berkeley, Stanford University and the Columbia University/Berkeley Joint Executive MBA program. With “Customer Development” the core theme in these classes.

In 2009, he was awarded the Stanford University Undergraduate Teaching Award in the department of Management Science and Engineering. The same year, the San Jose Mercury News listed me as one of the 10 Influencers in Silicon Valley. In 2010, I was awarded the Earl F. Cheit Outstanding Teaching Award at U.C. Berkeley Haas School of Business.

He has also given several well-received talks on “The Secret History of Silicon Valley“.

In 2007 Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger appointed him to serve on the California Coastal Commission, the public body which regulates land use and public access on the California coast. In 2010 he was appointed to the Expert Advisory Panel for the California Ocean Protection Council. He is on the board of Audubon California (and its past chair) and spent several years on the Audubon National Board. He is a board member of Peninsula Open Space Land Trust (POST). In 2009 he became a trustee of U.C. Santa Cruz and joined the board of the California League of Conservation Voters (CLCV).

The event will take place at the Pescadrome, 101 S Quarantina St, Santa Barbara, CA 93103.

Event: Steve Blank, entrepreneur & author
Date: April 14th
Time: Potluck BBQ ~7PM, talk at ~8:30PM
Location: The Pescadrome 101 S Quarantina St, Santa Barbara, CA 93103.

Fishbon is an artists’ collaborative based in Santa Barbara.

It should be a fun environment and good people. Please feel free to invite others. If you can RSVP to me at, it would be appreciated.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Beyond Data Ownership to Information Sharing

The question of who owns our data on the Internet is a challenging problem. It can also be a  red herring, distracting us from building the next generation of online services.

I Can Haz Cheezburger?The term “ownership” simply brings too much baggage from the physical world, suggesting a win-lose, us-verses-them mentality that retards the development of rich, powerful services based on shared information.

Anyone up for sacred cow cheeseburgers?

I’m a member–and a big fan–of Steve Holcombe‘s “Data Ownership in the CloudLinkedIn group and I love the efforts of the Dataportability guys and am a big supporter of the Privacy and Public Policy work group at Kantara. There is a lot of good work being done by folks trying to figure out how to give people greater control over the use of data about them (privacy) and gain access to data they use or created (dataportability).

Unfortunately, sometimes the arguments behind these efforts are based on who owns–or who should own–the data. This is not just an intellectual debate or political rallying call, it often undermines our common efforts to build a better system.

Consider this:

  1. Privacy as secrecy is dead
  2. Data sharing is data copying
  3. Transaction data has dual ownership
  4. Yours, mine, & ours: Reality is complicated
  5. Taking back ownership is confrontational

Privacy as secrecy is dead

zippered lipsFirst, the data is pretty much already out there. The issue isn’t “How do we keep data from bad people,” it’s “How do we keep people from doing bad things with data?” DRM and crypto and related technology as the sole means to prevent data leakage and data abuse are failures. Sooner or later, the bad guys break the system and get the data.  Sure, there are smart things we can do to protect ourselves. Just like we wear seatbelts and lock our front doors, we should also use SSL and multi-factor authentication, but we can’t count on technology to keep our secrets. We need solutions that work even when the secret is out.

In fact, privacy isn’t about information we keep secret. It is about information we have revealed to someone else with expectation of discretion, e.g., when we tell our doctor about our sexual activities. It’s no longer a secret from the Doctor, but because it is private, we have rules that keep the information from being used inappropriately. Most of the time, with most doctors, it works. Those few who break those rules are dealt with through legal means, both civil and criminal, as well as social approbation. So, because we inherently need to release data to different parties at different times, we can’t control it through secrecy alone. Instead, we need to build a framework for preventing abuse when others do have access to sensitive information. Like in the case with our doctor, we want our service providers to have the data they need to provide the highest quality services.

Data sharing is data copying

blurry green bitsSecond, in the world of atoms, there can only be one of a thing, which is the reverse of the world of bits. With atoms, even if there are copies, each copy is itself a singular thing. Selling, transferring, or stealing a thing precludes the original owner from continuing to use it.

This isn’t true for information, which can easily be sold, transfered, and stolen without disturbing the original version. In fact, the entire Internet is basically a copy machine, copying IP packets from router to router, as we “send” images, web pages, and emails from user to user and machine to machine–each time a new copy is created whether or not the originating copy is deleted. To think of bits as if they were ownable property leads to attempted solutions like DRM that try to technologically prevent access to the information within the data, which is only good until the first hacker cracks the code and distributes it themselves. Instead, if we build social and legal controls on use, we can give information more freely, but under terms set by each individual when they share that information. Enforced by social and legal rather than purely technological means, this makes the most of the low marginal cost of distributing  online, while retaining control for contributors.

Transaction data has dual ownership

Fast Times at Ridgemont High

Image via Wikipedia

Third, much interesting data is actually mutually owned… which means the other guy can already do whatever the heck they want with it.  Consider web attention data, the stream of digital crumbs representing the websites we’ve visited and any interactions at each: all our purchases, all our blog posts, all our searches. Everything. Some folks argue that we own that data and therefore have the right to control the use of it. But so too do the owners of the websites we’ve been visiting. We don’t own our http log entries at Amazon. Amazon does. In fact, in every instance where two parties interact, where we engage in some transaction with someone else, both parties are co-creating that information. As such, both parties own it. So, if we tie the issue of control to ownership, then we’ve already lost the battle, because every service provider has solid claims to ownership over the information stored in their log files, just as we, as individuals, own the browsing history stored on our hard drive by Firefox, Internet Explorer and Chrome.

In the movie Fast Times at Ridgemont High, in a confrontation with Mr. Hand, Spicoli argues “If I’m here and you’re here, doesn’t that make it our time?”  Just like the time shared between Spicoli and Mr. Hand, the information created by visiting a website is co-created and co-owned by both the visitor and the website.  Every single interaction between two endpoints on the web generates at least two owners of the underlying data.

This is not a minor issue. The courts have already ruled that if an email is stored for any period of time on a server, the owner of that server has a right to read the email.  So, when “my” email is out there at Gmail or AOL or on our company’s servers, know that it is also, legally, factually, and functionally, already their data.

Yours, mine, & ours: Reality is complicated

Fourth, when two parties come together for any reason, each brings their own data to the exchange. We need a framework that can handle that. Iain Henderson breaks down this complexity in a blog post about your data, my data, and our data, talking about an individual doing business with a vendor, for example, someone buying a car.

our data

“My data” means data that I, as an individual have that is related to the transaction. It could include the kind of car I’m looking for, my budget, and estimates of my spouse’s requirements to approve of a new purchase.

“Your data” means data that the car dealer knows, including the actual cost of the vehicle, the number of units in inventory, the pace of sales, current buzz from other dealers.

“Our Data” means information that both parties have in common. That could be Shared Information, explicitly given by one party to the other in the course of the deal, such as a social security number so the dealer could run a credit check. It could be Mutual Information, generated by the very act of the transaction, such as the final sale price of the vehicle. Or, it could be Overlapping Information, which each party happens to know independently, such as the Manufacturer Suggested Retail Price (MSRP) of a vehicle (which we found online before heading to the dealership).

The ownership of “your” and “my” data is usually clear. However, ownership of the different types of “our” data is a challenge at best.  To complicate matters further, every instance of “my data” is somebody else’s “your data”. In every case, there is this mutually reciprocal relationship between us and them. In the VRM case, we usually think of the individual as owning “my data” and the vendor as owning “your data”, but for the vendor, the reverse is true: to them their data is “my data” and the individual’s data is “your data”. Similar dynamics occur when the other party is an individual. I bring my data, you bring your data, and together we’ll engage with “our” data. We need an approach that respects and applies to everyone’s data, you, me, them, everybody.

In these complex Venn diagrams of ownership, it is more important who controls the data than who owns it.  We’ve already lost the crudest form of control–secrecy–and we are going to continue to lose more as we opt-in to seductive new services based on divulging more and more information: our purchase history, browsing activity, and real-world location data. But we still need to control how all this data is used, to protect our own interests while still enjoying the benefits of the great big copy machine that is the Internet.

Taking back ownership is confrontational


© Regien Paassen |

Fifth, we don’t need to pick a fight to change the game. There is a lot of data out there that many of us believe we should have control over. I agree. A lot of people argue that we should have the right to exclude other people’s use because we own the data, because it’s ours in some legal, moral, or ethical framework. The problem is, those other people already have it, and they also believe that they are legitimate owners. In fact, many of them paid for that data, buying it from data aggregators who compile all sorts of things about people, from both public and private sources. This entire ecosystem of customer data is a multi-billion dollar business and every single player “owns” the data they are working with. So if we focus our energy in claiming ownership over that same data in order to take control, we are framing the conversation as a fight, a fight against a powerful, well-healed, well-funded, entrenched bunch of opponents.

Most of these “opponents” are the very people we are trying to win over to our way of thinking. These are the vendors we want to embrace a new way to do business. These are the technologists we want to transform their proven, value-generating CRM systems to work with our data on our terms, instead of their data on their terms. Arguing over ownership puts these potential allies on the defensive, when what we really want is their collaboration.

From Ownership to Authority, Rights, and Responsibilities

parchment and quill

Rather than building a regime based on data ownership, I believe we would be better served by building one based on authority, rights, and responsibilities. That is, based on Information Sharing.

  • Who has the authority to control access and use of particular information?
  • What rights does a party have in using and distributing a piece of information?
  • What responsibilities does an information user have to others with respect to that information?

Let’s stop arguing about who owns what and start figuring out how we can share information in ways that allow everyone to win.

When we collect all of our information into a single conceptual repository, and then share access to it with service providers on our own terms, we create a high quality, highly relevant, curated personal data store. This allows us to bootstrap a control regime over all of our data in a way that creates new value for us and for our service providers. Now, instead of iTunes Genius or a Last.FM scrobbler only having access to our media use with their service, they can provide recommendations based on all the information stored in our personal audio data store. We get better recommendations and they get better data to drive their services. This personal data store is entirely under the authority of the user, sharing information with service providers according to specific rights and responsibilities.

man with gift

The Information Sharing approach neatly sidesteps the complexities involved in privacy and dataportability issues of the information already known by service providers. These remain serious issues, worth addressing. Resolving them will require long term investment in the legal, regulatory, moral, and political systems that govern our society. Fortunately, sharing the information in our personal data store can begin almost immediately once we have working specifications.

This controlled sharing of information will dramatically increase our comfort level when revealing our intentions and interests. We would have control over the use–and would be able to prevent abuse–of that information, while making it easy for service providers to improve our lives in countless ways.

At the Information Sharing Work Group at the Kantara Initiative, Iain Henderson and I are leading a conversation to create a framework for sharing information with service providers, online and off. We are coordinating with folks involved in privacy and dataportability and distinguish our effort by focusing on new information, information created for the purposes of sharing with others to enable a better service experience. Our goal is to create the technical and legal framework for Information Sharing that both protects the individual and enables new services built on previously unshared and unsharable information. In short, we are setting aside the questions of data ownership and focusing on the means for individuals to control that magical, digital pixie dust we sprinkle across every website we visit.

No-Spam logo

Image by hegarty_david via Flickr

Because the fact is, we want to share information. We want Google to know what we are searching for. We want Orbitz to know where we want to fly. We want to know the kind of car we are looking for.

We just don’t want that information to be abused. We don’t want to be spammed, telemarketed, and adverblasted to death. We don’t want companies stockpiling vast data warehouses of personal information outside of our control. We don’t want to be exploited by corporations leveraging asymmetric power to force us to divulge and relinquish control over our addresses, dates of birth, and the names of our friends and family.

What we want is to share our information, on our terms. We want to protect our interests and enable service providers to do truly amazing things for us and on our behalf. This is the promise of the digital age: fabulous new services, under the guidance and control of each of us, individually.

And that is precisely what Information Sharing work group at Kantara is enabling.

The work is a continuation of several years of collaboration with Doc Searls and others at ProjectVRM. We’re building on the principles and conversations of Vendor Relationship Management and User Driven Services to create an industry standard for a legal and technical solution to individually-driven Information Sharing.

Our work group, like all Kantara work groups, is open to all contributors–and non-contributing participants–at no cost.  I invite everyone interested in helping create a user-driven world to join us.

It should be an exciting future.

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Award Number IIP-08488990. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

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Digital cleansing

Several folks (Matt Cutts and John Meyer, among others) have called for a break from our social networking, online everything world.


It’s about time.

kool-aid man

I sated myself long ago on the digital high of social networking, whether you call it Twitter, Facebook, or something else. We, the Kool-Aid drinkers, will try just about any new technical gadget if it promises us a richer, more immediate advantage… in life, work, whatever.

But even digital fanbois cannot live on Kool-Aid alone.

We are weaving a new social tapestry. Home pages, blogs, tweets, profiles, these are all part of something bigger co-created in bits to replace and augment our traditional social ties in the world of atoms. As we discover new toys, they’ll grab our attention, until the glow of novelty fades. “Shiny” wins for the moment. Then, those with enduring value find a place in our daily lives.

Blogs, for example, dramatically transformed as Twitter took over for real-time tidbits and pointers. Blogs stopped being the most frequent vehicle for self-published contributions to the global conversation, and instead settled in as a long form context for engaging dialog. While Twitter satisfies the instant gratification of the exclamation, blogs allow a more durable appreciation and digestion of complex ideas. Blogs moved from the reactive, real-time driver of the echosphere to a more natural role, aligned with its form and function a medium for deliberative discussion and debate, tirades and manifestos.

So, for those of you still running high on your first rush with Twitter or Facebook… I agree with Matt & John.

Take some time off.

Reconnect with your work and your passions offline and in other media. It may well highlight what is magical in social networking and what is just flavored sugar-water. It may even allow you to reconfigure your online social network as a more durable, value-creating contribution to your life.

That would be an excellent way to start the second decade of the millennium.

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A fresh breath

This last year (2009) was the most challenging ever for me, both personally and professionally. Good times, tough problems, people that transformed my heart, and ideas that changed my perspective. It wasn’t always easy, but each challenge had its own reward.

I’m looking forward to writing a bit more this year, opening the conversation up about portable contexts and user driven services. My work with Project VRM and the Kantara Initiative‘s Information Sharing and User-Managed Access Work Groups will continue to be a big part of that.

I’m also looking forward to some interesting new product and service releases, from SwitchBook, MyDex, The Mine!, and others in the VRM community, as well as updates and innovations from ScanarooKynetx and Azigo and others. Also, Doc Searls‘ upcoming book on the Intention Economy promises to be an intriguing read. It should be a good year for VRM.

Best of luck to you and for your own plans for 2010. May it be a stand-out year for all of us.

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