What is the DataPortability Project

When we created the DataPortability workgroup in November 2007, it was after discussion amongst a few of us to further explore an idea; a vision for the future of the social web. By working together, we thought we could make real change in the industry. What we didn’t realise, was how quickly and how big the attention generated by this workgroup was to be. A press release has been released that details the journey to date, which highlight’s some interesting tidbits. What I am going to write below, are how my own thoughts have evolved over the last few months, and what it is that I think DataPortability is.

1) Getting companies to adopt open, existing standards
RSS , OpenID , APML , oAuth , RDF , and the rest. These technologies exist, with of which have been around for many years. Everyone that understands what they are, know that they rock. If these standards are all so great – why hasn’t the entire technology industry adopted them yet? Now we just need awareness, education and in some cases pressure on the industry heavies to adopt them.

2) Create best practices of implementing these standards
When you are part of a community, you are in the know, and don’t realise how the outside world looks in. Let the standards communities focus their precious energies on creating and maintaining the technologies; and DataPortability can help provide resources for people to implement them. Is providing PHP4 support for oAuth really a priority? It isn’t for them – but by pooling the community with people that have diverse skillsets and are committed to the overall picture, it has a better chance of happening.

3) Synthesise these open standards to play nice with each other.
All these different communities working in isolation have been doing their own thing. An example is how Yadis-XRDS are working on service discovery and have a lacklustre catalogue. Do we just leave them to do their own thing? Does someone else in Bangalore create his own catalogue? (Which is highly likely given the under-exposure of this key aspect to groups needing it for the other standards, and the current state its in). Thanks to Kaliya for mentioning that the XRDS guys have been more then proficient in working with other groups – "how do you think their spec is part of the OpenID spec?". Julian Bond goes on to say: "Yadis-XRDS is only months old and XRDS-Simple is literally days old…Having trouble thinking of a community that is working in isolation. And that isn’t likely to be hugely offended if you suggested it. " So let me leave the examples here, and just say the DataPortability Project when defining technical and policy blueprints, can identify issues and from the bigger picture perspective focus attention on where it’s needed. By embracing the broader community, and focusing our attention on weaknesses, we can ensure no one is reinventing wheels .

4) Communicate all the good things the existing communities are doing, under the one brand, to the end user.
RSS is by far the most recognised open standard. Have you ever tried explaining RSS to someone who is outside of the tech industry? I have. Multiple times. It’s like I’ve just told them about the future with flying cars and settlements on Mars. I’ve done it in in the corporate world, to friends, family, girls I date, guys I weight train with and anyone else. Moving onto OpenID – does anyone apart from Scoble and the technorati who try all the webservices they can, really care? Most people use Facebook, Hotmail (the cutting edge are using Gmail) and that’s it. On your next trip to Europe ask a cultured French (wo)man if they know what OpenID is; why they need it; what they can do with it. Now try explaining RSS to the mix. And APML. And oAuth. Bonus if you can explain RDF to yourself.

Wouldn’t it be just easier if you explained what DataPortability is, and explained the benefits that can be achieved by using all these standards? Standards are invisible things that consumers shouldn’t need to care about; they just care about the benefits. Do consumers care about the standards behind Wi-Fi, as defined by Zero-conf – or do they care about clicking "enable wireless" on their laptop and them connecting to the Internet. If you are going around evangelising the technical standards, the only audience you will get are the corporates in IT departments, who couldn’t care less. The corporate IT guys respond to their customer/client facing guys, who in turn respond to consumers – and consumers couldn’t care less on how its done, but just what they can do. Have the consumer channel their demand, and it benefits the whole ecosystem.


The new DataPortability trustmark

It has been said the average consumer doesn’t care about DataPortability. Of course they don’t – we are still in the investigation phase of the Project ; which later on will evolve to the design phases and then evangelising phases. We know people would want RSS, oAuth, and the rest of the Alphabet soup – so lets use DataPortability as a brand that we can communicate this. Sales is about creating demand – lets coordinate our ‘selling’ to make it overwhelming – and make it easy for consumers to channel that want in a way they can relate to. You don’t say "oAuth"; you say "preventing password theft" to them instead.

5) Make the business case that a user should get open access to their data
Why should Facebook let other applications use the data it has on its servers? Why should google give up all this data they have about their users to a competitor? Why should a Fortune 500 adopt solutions that decentralise their control? Why should a user adopt RDF on their blog when they get no clear benefit from it? Is a self-trained PHP coder who can whack something together, going to be able to articulate that to the VC’s?

The tech industry has this obsession that nothing gets done unless the developers are on board. No surprises there – if we don’t have an engineer to build the bridge, we are going to have to keep jumping off the cliff hoping we make it to the other side. But at the same time, if you don’t have the people persuading the people that would fund this bridge; or the broader population about how important it is for them to have this bridge – that engineer can build what he wants but the end result is that no one will ever walk on it. Funny how web2.0 companies suck at the revenue model thing : overhype on the development innovation, with under-hype on the value-proposition to the ordinary consumer who funds their business .

Developers need to be on board because they hassle their bosses and sometimes that evangelising from within works; but imagine if we get the developers bosses bosses on board because some old bear on the board of directors wants DataPortability after his daughter explained it to him (the same person that also told him about Facebook and Youtube). I can assure you, as I’ve seen it first hand with the senior leadership at my own firm, this is exactly what is happening.

Intel is one of the best selling computer-chip companies in the world. Do you really think as a consumer I care about what chip my computers works on? Logically – no. But "Intel’s Inside" marketing campaign gave them a monopoly, because end consumers would ask "does it have intel inside?" and this pressure forced Intel’s customers (IBM and the rest) to actually use Intel. Steve Greenberg corrects me by saying "The Intel Inside campaign came a decade after Intel took over the world. It wasn’t what got them there. It was in response to Microsoft signaling that they liked AMD. Looked like AMD was going to take off… but then they didn’t". So my facts were slightly wrong, but the point still remains.
At the same time, it isn’t just political pressure but its also to educate. I genuinely believe opening up your data is a smart business strategy that will change the potential of web services.

You make people care by giving them an incentive to do it (business opportunities; customer political pressure; peer pressure as individuals and an industry which later evolve to industry norms). The semantic web communities, the VRM communities, the entire open standards communities – all have a common interest in doing this. DataPortability is culture change on an industry wide level, that will improve the entire ecosystem. Apparently innovation has died – I say it’s just beginning .

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