A couple of weeks ago I attended a workshop on Inventing the Future of Finance cosponsored by ID³ and the MIT Media Lab. ID³, - the Institute for Institutional Innovation by Data Driven Design, - is a new multidisciplinary non-profit institution formed to develop architectural frameworks, open source software and educational content for the protection, sharing and monetization of sensitive data.
It was founded by MIT Media Lab Professor Alex “Sandy” Pentland, and by John Clippinger, who is currently a Research Scientists at the Media Lab, and until recently was a Senior Fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society. Clippinger is Executive Director and CEO of ID³, while Pentland serves as its Chief Scientist. I just joined its Board of Directors.
One of the key missions of ID³ is the creation of trust frameworks, which it defines as: “A combination of software mechanisms, contracts, and rules for defining, governing and enforcing the sharing and protection of information according to a common and independently verifiable standard of performance. Whenever possible, such governance mechanisms and contracts should be self-executing and self-correcting.”
What distinguishes ID³ from NSTIC and similar such organizations developing policy principles for trust and identity frameworks is its objective to embody the policy principles in open software reference implementations that can be tested, verified, improved and scaled. Regulatory and policy practices cannot possibly keep pace with technological change. Therefore, ID³ believes, governance principles should be expressed as software that is then able to evolve to incorporate advances in technology and to support changing market and societal requirements.
Open, collaborative approaches have been successfully applied to the development of some of the most consequential, disruptive initiatives of the past few decades, like the World Wide Web and Linux. The notion of adopting such an approach for the development of digital trust frameworks feels like another major disruptive initiative with potentially major implications.
Not long ago, such open, community-based initiatives were considered pretty revolutionary. I recently attended the 20th anniversary of Linux, and was reminded that when IBM announced its strong support for Linux in January of 2000, many clients and analysts were totally perplexed that IBM was so aggressively supporting an operating system that was being developed by a self-organizing community of volunteers from all over the world, and which they believed was so removed from the IT mainstream. But, only a few years later, Linux became a widely used mainstream operating system.
Self-organizing, open communities are now well accepted as a production model for complex initiatives with major societal benefits, - like trust frameworks. As digital technologies are now permeating every nook and cranny of our work and personal lives, many of our critical transactions, including those involving finance, shopping, health and government, are now taking place online, and in the process, they are generating large amounts of highly sensitive information. Furthermore, the explosive growth of smart phones is generating vast amounts of real time geospatial data, thus significantly adding to the already huge volumes of personal information being collected.
We can expect that analyzing and extracting insights from all these data will lead to many innovative applications with considerable economic and societal value. But, this can only happen if we learn to properly managing these vast amounts of personal information.
In 2010, the World Economic Forum, - one of ID³'s collaborating institutions, - launched a project on Rethinking Personal Data. The project brought together experts from business, government, academia and end user privacy and rights groups. Earlier this year they published an excellent report, - Personal Data: the Emergence of a New Asset Class, - that explains the challenges and opportunities involved in properly managing the growing volumes of personal data. The report makes specific recommendations for the development of a principled, collaborative and balanced personal data ecosystem, one that is capable to evolve and improve over time.
“We are moving towards a Web of the world in which mobile communications, social technologies and sensors are connecting people, the Internet and the physical world into one interconnected network,” says the report in its introduction. “Data records are collected on who we are, who we know, where we are, where we have been and where we plan to go. Mining and analysing this data give us the ability to understand and even predict where humans focus their attention and activity at the individual, group and global level.”
“This personal data - digital data created by and about people - is generating a new wave of opportunity for economic and societal value creation. The types, quantity and value of personal data being collected are vast: our profiles and demographic data from bank accounts to medical records to employment data. Our Web searches and sites visited, including our likes and dislikes and purchase histories. Our tweets, texts, emails, phone calls, photos and videos as well as the coordinates of our real-world locations. The list continues to grow.”
“Firms collect and use this data to support individualised service-delivery business models that can be monetised. Governments employ personal data to provide critical public services more efficiently and effectively. Researchers accelerate the development of new drugs and treatment protocols. End users benefit from free, personalised consumer experiences such as Internet search, social networking or buying recommendations.”
“And that is just the beginning. Increasing the control that individuals have over the manner in which their personal data is collected, managed and shared will spur a host of new services and applications. As some put it, personal data will be the new “oil” – a valuable resource of the 21st century. It will emerge as a new asset class touching all aspects of society.”
The Rethinking Personal Data project aims to:
- “Establish a user-centric framework for identifying the opportunities, risks and collaborative responses in the use of personal data”;
- “Foster a rich and collaborative exchange of knowledge in the development of cases and pilot studies”; and
- “Develop a guiding set of global principles to help in the evolution of a balanced personal data ecosystem.”
The digital trust frameworks that ID³ has started to develop are an attempt to embody the appropriate set of guiding principles, - such as those being defined by the World Economy Forum and NSTIC, - in an open, self-executing and self-correcting software platform. This project is truly a technical and organizational Grand Challenge. Let us hope that it succeeds, and can thus help make personal data a new kind of societal currency that will benefit individuals and institutions around the world.