DataPortability is about user value, fool!

In a recent interview, VentureBeat asks Facebook creator and CEO Mark Zuckerberg the following:

VB: Facebook has recently joined DataPortability.org, a working group among web companies, that intends to develop common standards so users can access their data across sites. Is Facebook going to let users — and other companies — take Facebook data completely off Facebook?

MZ: I think that trend is worth watching.

It disappoints me to see that, because it seems like a quick journalists hit at a contentious issue. On the other hand, we have seen amazing news today which are examples of exactly the type of thing we should be expecting in a data portability enabled world: the Google contacts API which has been a thing we have highlighted for months now as an issue for data security and Google analytics allowing benchmarking which is a clear example of a company that understands by linking different types of data you generate more information and therefore value for the user. The DataPortability project is about trying to advocate new ways of thinking, and indeed, we don’t have to formally produce a product in as much maintain the agenda in the industry.

However the reason I write this is that it worries me a bit that we are throwing around the term “data portability” despite the fact the DataPortability Project has yet to formally define what that means. I can say this because as a member of the policy action group and the steering action group which are responsible for making this distinction, we have yet to formally decide.

Today, I offer an analysis of what the industry needs to be talking about, because the term is being thrown around like buggery. Whilst it may be weeks or months before we finalise this, it’s starting to bother me that people seem to think the concept means solving the rest of the world’s problems or to disrupt the status quo. It’s time for some focus!

Value creation
First of all, we need to determine why the hell we want data portability. DataPortability (note the distinction of the term with that of ‘data portability’ Рthe latter represents the philosophy whilst the former is the implementation of that philosophy by DataPortability.org) is not a new utopian ideal; it’s a new way of thinking about things that will generate value in the entire Information sector. So to genuinely want to create value for consumers and businesses alike, we need to apply thinking that we use in the rest of the business world.

A company should be centered on generating value for its customers. Whilst they may have obligations to generate returns for their shareholders, and may attempt different things to meet those obligations; they also have an obligation to generate shareholder value. To generate shareholder value, means to fund the growth of their business ultimately through increased customer utility which is the only long term way of doing so (taking out acquisitions and operational efficiency which are other ways companies generate more value but which are short term measures however). Therefore an analysis of what value DataPortability creates should be done with the customer in mind.

The economic value of a user having some sort of control over their data is that they can generate more value through their transactions within the Information economy. This means better insights (ie, greater interoperability allowing the connection of data to create more information), less redundancy (being able to use the same data), and more security (which includes better privacy which can compromise a consumers existence if not managed).

Secondly, what does it mean for a consumer to have data portability? Since we have realised that the purpose of such an exercise is to generate value, questions about data like “control”, “access” and “ownership” need to be reevaluated because on face value, the way they are applied may have either beneficial or detrimental effects for new business models. The international accounting standards state that you can legally “own” an asset but not necessarily receive the economics benefits associated with that asset. The concept of ownership to achieve benefit is something we really need to clarify, because quite frankly, ownership does not translate into economic benefit which is what we are at stake to achieve.

Privacy is a concept that has legal implications, and regardless of what we discuss with DataPortability, it still needs to be considered because business operates within the frameworks of law. Specifically, the human rights of an individual (who are consumers) need to be given greater priority than any other factor. So although we should be focused on how we can generate value, we also need to be mindful that certain types of data, like personally identifiable data, needs to be considered in adifferent light as there are social implications in addition to the economic aspects.

The use cases
The technical action group within the DataPortability project has been attempting to create a list of scenarios that constitute use cases for DataPortability enablement. This is crucial because to develop the blueprint, we also need to know what exactly the blueprint applies to.

I think it’s time however we recognise, that this isn’t merely a technical issue, but an industry issue. So now that we have begun the research phase of the DataPortability Project, I ask you and everyone else to join me as we discuss what exactly is the economic benefit that DataPortability creates. Rather than asking if Facebook is going to give up its users data to other applications, we need to be thinking on what is the end value that we strive to achieve by having DataPortability.

Portability in context, not location
When the media discuss DataPortability, please understand that a user simply being able to export their data is quite irrelevant to the discussion, as I have outlined in my previous posting. What truly matters is “access”. The ability for a user to command the economic benefits of their data, is the ability to determine who else can access their data. Companies need to be thinking that value creation comes from generating information – which is simply relationships between different data ‘objects’. If a user is to get the economic benefits of using their data from other repositories, companies simply need to allow the ability for a user to delegate permission for others to access that data. Such a thing does not compromise a company’s competitive advantage as they won’t necessarily have to delete data they have of a user; rather it requires them to try to to realise that holding in custody a users data or parts of it gives them a better advantage as hosting a users data gives them complete access, to try to come up with innovative new information products for the user.

So what’s my point? When discussing DataPortability, let’s focus on the value to the user. And the next time the top tech blogs confront the companies that are supporting the movement with a simplistic “when are you going to let users take their data completely off ” I am going to burn my bra in protest.

Disclosure: I’m a hetrosexual male that doesn’t cross-dress

Update: I didn’t mean to scapegoat Eric from VentureBeat who is a brilliant writer. However I used him to give an example of the language being used in the entire community which now needs to change. With the DP research phase now officially underway for the next few months, the questions we should be asking should be more open-ended as we at the DataPortability project have realised these issues are complex, and we need to get the entire community to come to a consensus. DataPortability is no longer just about exporting your social graph – it’s an entirely new approach to how we will be doing business on the net, and as such, requires us to fundamentally reexamine a lot more than we originally thought.

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