As data becomes a new currency, why should we care?

In my previous blog post, “Let’s please stop talking #privacy“, I talked about the proliferation of personal data collection and why we needed to shift the conversation from preventing data being collected, something that I would argue is impossible to implement in practical terms, and instead focus on data rights for the individual. In this post I want to examine the way data is evolving as a currency and explore potential outcomes and implications.

So why my interest in “data as a currency” and why do I believe it’s a critical consideration for all of us as we move into this cognitive era.

Today we are all addicted to “free stuff”, in fact when it comes to software products and services we pretty much refuse to pay for anything. We just expect software to be free, or close to free. However to quote one of my college professors who used to like to remind me, whenever I complained about my workload or a project deadline, that “there is no such thing as a free lunch, Ms. Wallace”. We are always paying for a product, so if we aren’t paying for it with our cash, then we are paying for it with our data and our attention. Increasingly data is becoming the purchase price of software, which means that we (developers) need to design our solutions around data collection and analysis, and we (consumers) need to understand what data is being collected and how it is being used.

Let’s just make clear that data collection is not a bad thing; in fact it can be a very good thing and hugely beneficial for consumer, employee, citizen, corporate, and government. The trick is to establish a level playing field based on mutual respect where there is transparency between those collecting the data and those whose data is being collected. For the rest of this post I want to focus on the implications of “data as a currency” and discuss the privacy implementation details in a later post; let’s just assume that data rights exist as they are an absolute requirement for what I am going to discuss next.

If we consider data as a currency that we use to gain access to products and services, then it means that we need two things to happen. Firstly we need our data, as much and as diverse as possible, to be collected. Secondly we need control on how our data is used and who can use it, which means that we need to own our own data. Unfortunately this is not the world we have today, but it is the world we need in the future.

Now let’s unpack these last sentences as they represent how I see data and it’s role as a currency.

  • I used the term “to gain access to” instead of “to buy” for a specific reason. As we move towards data-driven services, there will be services that we cannot access without data. It may be a medical screening service where test data or even lifestyle data is required, an insurance policy where driving history data is a minimum requirement, or a bank loan where the application requires historical spending data. People who opt-out of data collection could become excluded and left at a disadvantage economically, medically, or otherwise.
  • The reference to “as diverse as possible” means that data will be collected by many different products or services, and this raises a big challenge around data access and integration. If we want to make our data work for us, then we need be able to access it, all of it. We need to be able to package it up and make it, or parts of it, available to other services, which brings us to the final point… the data ownership and control question.
  • Data ownership is a thorny topic, where today software services feel that they own your data since they generated it and likely gave you access to their service for free or at reduced cost in return for your data. This situation needs to be resolved in a way that satisfies both parties. You absolutely need to have access to your data, irrespective of who generated it, and you need to be able to choose what happens to it; and I don’t just mean the right to delete it, but the right to repurpose it or make it available to another service. It’s reasonable for the service that generated the data to maintain rights to use it, as outlined in their user agreement, but that shouldn’t give them total non-transferrable rights to your data.

In a world where data becomes increasingly the underpinning of all the products and services that we use, we don’t want to create a society of “haves and have-nots”, where some people have rich data resources that they can tap into, while others are data poor. If we stopped thinking about data as the enemy and instead think of it as a basic human right, and put the required protections around it, I believe that we would have a better and fairer cognitive world in the future.

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