Tag Archive for 'DataPortability'

Downloadsquad.com interview

The bulk of the panels at SXSW have been on the whole ordinary. Rather than pulling interesting people around a topic to project new ideas about the future – the panels seemed to have a different formula. One that is “how can I promote my company/personal brand the best, under the guise of an interesting topic filled with buzz words that will suck the audience in”. There are outliers of course, but that’s how I feel most of them have been.

It’s wrong for me to be judgmental of the entire conference, but I have to contrast that with the bloggers room. I’m a new face to the industry, especially the US world where I know few people. But sitting down working on my things (outside of the bubble that is SXSW), I randomly meet people who introduce me to other people. Interesting conversations, interesting people, and you never know who you will bump into.

Like Grant Robertson who interviewed me for one of the most trafficked websites around! (number 23 blog in the world.) Check out what I say, explaining what the DataPortability Project is, and what we’ve been doing since last years SXSW. I wish I said more informative stuff (ie, this is not self-promotion, if I think I did lame!) – but just goes to show where the real value out of a conference like this is: the centralisation of so many people that think alike, interested in each other, thinking about the future.

Impromptu video on DataPortability.Org

Daniela Barbosa and I caught up with David and Kaliya. After we finished coffee, David decided to spring a video on us for the Social Web TV!

If you are wondering on what we are doing with the DataPortability Project, then here’s your update.

You don’t nor need to own your data

One of the biggest questions the DataPortability project has grappled with (and where the entire industry is not at consensus), is a fairly basic question with some profound consequences: who owns your data. Well I think I have an answer to the question now, which I’ve now cross-validated across multiple domains. Given we live in the Information Age, this certainly matters in every respect.

So who owns “your data”? Not you. Or the other guy. Or the government, and the MicroGooHoo corporate monolith. Actually, no one does. And if they do, it doesn’t matter.

People like to conflate the concept of property ownership to that of data ownership. I mean it’s you right? You own your house so surely, you own your e-mail address, your name, your date of birth records, your identity. However when you go into the details, from a conceptual level, it doesn’t make sense.

Ownership of data
First of all, let’s define property ownership: “the ability to deny use of an asset by another entity”. The reason you can claim status to owning your house, is because you can deny someone else access to your property. Most of us have a fence to separate our property from the public space; others like the hillbillies sit in their rocking chair with a shot gun ready to fire. Either way, it’s well understood if someone else owns something, and if you trespass, the dogs will chase after you.


The characteristics of ownership can be described as follows:
1) You have legal title recognising in your legal jurisdiction that you own it.
2) You have the ability to enforce your right of ownership in your legal jurisdiction
3) You can get benefits from the property.

The third point is key. When people cry out loud “I own my data”, that’s essentially the reason (when you take out the Neanderthal emotionally-driven reasoning out of the equation). Where we get a little lost though, is when we define those benefits. It could be said, that you want to be able to control your data so that you can use it somewhere else, and so you can make sure someone else doesn’t use it in a way that causes you harm.

Whilst that might sound like ownership to you, that’s where the house of cards collapses. The reason being, unless you can prove the ability to deny use by another entity, you do not have ownership. It’s a trap, because data is not like a physical good which cannot be easily copied. It’s like a butterfly locked in a safe: the moment you open that safe up, you can say good bye. If data can only satisfy the ownership definition when you hide it from the world, that means when it’s public to the world, you no longer own it. And that sucks, because data by nature is used for public consumption. But what if you could get the same benefits of ownership – or rather, receive benefits of usage and regulate usage – without actually ‘owning’ it?

Property and data – same same, but different
Both property and data are assets. They create value for those who use them. But that’s where the similarity’s end.

Property gains value through scarcity. The more unique, the more valuable. Data on the other hand, gains value through reuse. The more derivative works off it, means the more information generated (as information is simply data connected with other data). The more information, the more knowledge, the more value created – working its way along the information value chain. If data is isolated, and not reused, it has little value. For example, if a company has a piece of data but is not allowed to ever use it – there is no value to it.

Data gains value through use, and additional value through reuse and derivative creations. If no one reads this blog, it’s a waste of space; if thousands of people read it, its value increases – as these ideas are decimated. To give one perspective on this, when people create their own posts reusing the data I’ve created, I generate value through them linking back to me. No linking, no value realised. Of course, I get a lot more value out of it beyond page rank juice, but hopefully you realise if you “steal” my content (with at least some acknowledgement to me the person), then you are actually doing me a favour.

Ignore the above!
Talking about all this ownership stuff doesn’t actually matter; it’s not ownership that we want. Let’s take a step back, and look at this from a broader, philosophical view.

Property ownership is based on the concept that you get value from holding something for an extended period of time. But in an age of rapid change, do you still get value from that? Let’s say, we lose the Holy War for people being able to ‘own’ their data. Facebook – you win – you now ‘own’ me. This is because it owns the data about me – my identity, it would appear, is under the control of Facebook – it now owns, that “I am in a relationship”. However, the Holy War might have been lost but I don’t care. Because Facebook owns crap – as six months ago, I was in a relationship. Now I’m single and haven’t updated my status. The value for Facebook, is not in owning me in a period of time: it’s in having access to me all the time – because one way they translate that data into value is advertising, and targeting ads is pointless if you have the wrong information to base your targetting on. Probably the only data that can be static in my profile, is birth-date and gender – but with some tampering and cosmetics, even those can be altered now!


Think about this point raised by Luk Vervenne, in response to my above thoughts on the VRM mailing list, by considering employability. A lot of your personal information, is actually generated by interactions with third parties, such as the education institution you received your degree from. So do I own the fact that I have a Bachelor of Commerce from the University of Sydney? No I don’t, as that brand and the authenticity is that of the university. What I do have however, is access & usage rights to it. Last time I checked, I didn’t own the university, but if someone quizzes me on my academic record, there’s a hotline ready to confirm it – and once validated, I get the recognition that translates into a benefit for me.

Our economy is now transitioning from a goods-producing to a service-performing and experience-generating economy. It’s hard for us to imagine this new world, as our conceptual understanding of the world is built on the concept of selling, buying and otherwise trading goods that ultimately ends in us owning something. But this market era of the exchange of goods is making way for “networks” and the concept of owning property will diminish in importance, as our new world is will now place value on the access.

This is a broader shift. As a young man building his life, I cannot afford to buy a house in Sydney with its overinflated prices. But that’s fine – I am comfortable in renting – all I want is ‘access’ to the property, not the legal title to it which quite frankly would be a bad investment decision even aside from the current economic crisis. I did manage to buy myself a car, but I am cursing the fact that I wasted my money on that debt which could have gone to more productive means – instead, I could have just paid for access to public transport and taxis when I needed transport. In other words, we now have an economy where you do not need to own something to get the value: you just need access.

That’s not to say property ownership is a dead concept – rather, it’s become less important. When we consider history as well, the concept of the masses “owning” property was foreign anyway – there was a class system with the small but influential aristocracy that would own the land, with the serfs working on the land. “Ownership” really, is a new ‘established’ concept to our world – and it’s now ready to get out of vogue again. We’ve now reached a level of sophistication in our society where we no longer need the security of ownership to get the benefits in our life – and these property owners that we get our benefits from, may appear to yield power but they also have a lot of financial risk, government accountability and public scrutiny (unlike history’s aristocracy).


Take a look at companies and how they outsource a lot of their functions (or even simplify their businesses’ value-activities). Every single client of mine – multi-million dollar businesses at that as well – pay rent. They don’t own the office space they are in, as for them to get the benefits, they instead simply need access which they get through rental. “Owning” the property is not part of the core value of the business. Whilst security is needed, because not having ownership can put you at the mercy of the landlord, this doesn’t mean you can’t contract protection like my clients do as part of the lease agreements.

To bring it back to the topic, access to your data is what matters – but it also needs to be carefully understood. For example, access to your health records might not be a good thing. Rather, you can control who has access to that data. Similarly, whilst no one might own your data, what you do have is the right to demand guidelines and principles like what we are trying to do at the DataPortability Project on how “your” data can be used. Certainly, the various governmental privacy and data protection legislation around the world does exactly that: it governs how companies can use personally identifiable data.

Incomplete thoughts, but I hope I’ve made you think. I know I’m still thinking.

Thoughts on privacy – possibly just a txt file away

The other week, a good friend of mine through my school and university days, dropped me a note. He asked me that now that he is transitioning from being a professional student to legal guru (he’s the type I’d expect would become a judge of the courts), that I pull down the website that hosts our experiment in digital media from university days. According to him, its become "a bit of an issue because I have two journal articles out, and its been brought to my attention that a search brings up writing of a very mixed tone/quality!".

In what seemed like a different lifetime for me, I ran a university Journalist’s Society and we experimented with media as a concept. One of our successful experiments, was a cheeky weekly digital newsletter, that held the student politicians in our community accountable. Often our commentary was hard-hitting, and for $4 web hosting bills a month and about 10 hours work each, we become a new power on campus influencing actions. It was fun, petty, and a big learning experience for everyone involved, including the poor bastards we massacred with accountability.

control panel

Privacy in the electronic age: is there an off button?

However this touches on all of us as we progress through life, what we thought was funny in a previous time, may now be awkward that we are all grown up. In this digitally enabled world, privacy has come to the forefront as an issue – and we are now suddenly seeing scary consequences of having all of our information available to anyone at anytime.

I’ve read countless articles about this, as I am sure you have. One story I remember is a guy who contributed to a marijuana discussion board in 2000, now struggles with jobs as that drug-taking past of his is the number one search engine result. The digital world, can really suck sometimes.

Why do we care?

This is unique and awkward, because it’s not someone defaming us. It’s not someone taking our speech out of context, and menacingly putting it a way that distorts our words. This is 100% us, stating what we think, with full understanding what the consequences of our actions were. We have no one but ourselves to blame.

nice arse

Time changes, even if the picture doesn’t: Partner seeing pictures of you – can be ok. Ex seeing pictures of you – likely not ok.

In the context of privacy, is it our right to determine who can see what about us, when we want them to? Is privacy about putting certain information in the "no one else but me" box or is it more dynamic then that – meaning, it varies according to the person consuming the information?

When I was younger, I would meet attractive girls quite a bit older than me, and as soon as I told them my age, they suddenly felt embarrassed. They either left thinking how could they let themselves be attracted to a younger man, treating me like I was suddenly inferior, or they showed a very visible reaction of distress! Actually, quite memorably when I was 20 I told a girl that I was on a date with that I was 22 – and she responded "thank God, because there is nothing more unattractive I find, than a guy that is younger than me". It turned out, fortunately, she had just turned 22. My theory about age just got a massive dose of validation.

Now me sharing this story is that certain information about ourselves can have adverse affects on us (in this case, my sex life!). I normally could not care less about my age, but with girls I would meet when I went out, I did care because it affected their perception of me. Despite nothing changing, the single bit of information about my age would totally change the interaction I had with a girl. Likewise, when we are interacting with people in our lives, the sudden knowledge of a bit of information could adversely affect their perception.

Bathroom close the hatch please

Some doors are best kept shut. Kinky for some; stinky for others

A friend of mine recently admitted to his girlfriend of six months that he’s used drugs before, which had her breakdown crying. This bit of information doesn’t change him in any way; but it shapes her perception about him, and the clash with her perception with the truth, creates an emotional reaction. Contrast this to these two party girls I met in Spain in my nine-months away, who found out I had never tried drugs before at the age of 21. I disappointed them, and in fact, one of them (initially) lost respect for me. These girls and my friends girlfriend, have two different value systems. And that piece of information, generates a completely differing perception – taking drugs can be seen as a "bad person" thing, or a "open minded" person, depending on who you talk to.

As humans, we care about what other people think. It influences our standing in society, our self-confidence, our ability to build rapport with other people. But the issue is, how can you control your image in an environment that is uncontrollable? What I tell one group of people for the sake of building rapport with them, I should also have the ability of ensuring that conversation is not repeated to others, who may not appreciate the information. If I have a fetish for women in red heels which I share with my friends, I should be able to prevent that information from being shared with my boss who loves wearing red heels and might feel a bit awkward the next time I look at her feet.

Any solutions?

Not really. We’re screwed.

Well, not quite. To bring it back to the e-mail exchange I had with my friend, I told him that the historian and technologist in me, couldn’t pull down a website for that reason. After all, there is nothing we should be ashamed about. And whilst he insisted, I made a proposal to him: what about if I could promise that no search engine would include those pages in their index, without having to pull the website down?

He responded with appreciation, as that was what the issue was. Not that he was ashamed of his prior writing, but that he didn’t want academics of today reading his leading edge thinking about the law, to come across his inflammatory criticism of some petty student politicians. He wanted to control his professional image, not erase history. So my solution of adding a robots.txt file was enough to get his desired sense of privacy, without fighting a battle with the uncontrollable.

Who knew, that privacy can be achieved with a text file that has two lines:

User-agent: *

Disallow: /

Those two lines are enough to control the search engines, from a beast that ruins our reputation, to a mechanism of enforcing our right to privacy. Open standards across the Internet, enabling us to determine how information is used, is what DataPortability can help us do achieve so we can control our world. The issue of privacy is not dead – we just need some creative applications, once we work out what exactly it is we think we are losing.

The DataPortability governance framework: a template

This is a post to give recognition to individuals who have contributed, in my eyes, an excellent step forward in our online world. It is with regards to the DataPortability governance task force, who have developed a governance model for the DataPortability Project. Six individuals contributed hours upon hours (I lost count after 30 on my own contribution as chair!) but before I profile these individuals, some context.

History of the DataPortability Project
The DataPortability Project was originally a workgroup. Chris Saad and Ashley Angell, with guys in the Faraday Media team like Paul Jones and Stephen Kelly, shared an idea with Daniela Barbosa, Ben Metcalfe, Marjoelin Hoekstra and myself. The concept of promoting open standards, whilst allowing people to own their personal data, to enable interoperability. After discussing it privately, we created a workgroup and invited some brilliant minds in the industry to explore this concept. Several ideas were explored, with the most prominent being a Web Relational File System. A bit like the entire world wide web being like your desktop computer, where you could control your data like you can with files at the drag of a button ie, you could copy your Facebook photos into your Flickr account.

Example of DataPortability by Chris Saad

Discussions on the workgroup were diverse, and often, on completely different themes – something that frustrated people. However within two short months, news broke out – and the existence of the workgroup dominated the news of the tech industry. A public list created for people not on the workgroup skyrocketed in subscribers (currently around 1240 people). A simple idea that we were still exploring what it meant, was now being flagged as one of the key trends for 2008.

Things literally exploded overnight – and we now had this massive, vocal, enthuasiastic community. So over the course of January 2008, the closed workgroup was deprecated in favour for specific “action groups”. Learning from our experience in the workgroup that different people had different interests (ie, the developers and the marketer’s had different areas of interest, which frustrated each other), separate groups were created. One group focused on evangelism of what we did; another on the policy aspects that is one big chunk of the problem. A third on the technical blueprints of putting together these different open standards into a cohesive whole. A fourth on supporting people who are trying to implement DataPortability; and finally a fifth called the “steering group” which would host representatives from companies, representatives from the other action groups, and from a big picture point of view determine the strategy of the Project.

A unique thing about this community however, was that few people actually knew each other. There were (and still are) people from San Francisco, Boston, Los Angeles, Washington DC, Washington State, Florida…and that’s just some of the places in the US! People in Dublin (Ireland), London & Bristol (UK), Den Haag (The Netherlands), Hong Kong (China), Adelaide, Sydney & Brisbane (Australia) as well as several cities in Germany being ones I can think of off the top of my head. All these people, communicating daily – would do so via e-mail and teleconferences. I often would joke that the sun would never set on the DataPortability Project, as you would have different “tribes” waking up throughout the day. I would wake up and find an avalanche of messages awaiting for me catch up on.

Something else was more remarkable however, if I may say so myself. As co-founders of the Project, we thought this was an amazing opportunity to explore a concept of a non-hierarchical, de-centralised decision making group. A global community where everyone is equal, working towards this goal that if successful, could fundamentally change the Internet and consequently the economy.

Needless to say, it failed. Not in in the “it’s all over” sense, but it was “blood frustrating”. How can you make even basic decisions, when there is a six hour time lag with the group of people you are collaborating with? What happens when there is a disagreement – who has the final say? There was also a clash of cultures, between the entrepreneurial types and those who work as contractors, who have a “let’s just do it” attitude which was at odds with the people with organisational experience that operate when there is “process”. The former is used to getting things done on the fly without having to consult people; but as the latter group would argue, things don’t work like that with a group of people. Without a formal process of how things work, the boat so to speak, will sink.


As were were realising these issues however, we also were given a remarkable opportunity: the kind folk at TechCrunch donated $6,625 to us . We also privately had other companies and people asking how could they contribute. But how are you meant to donate money to an online community? To do that, you need a bank account – but who controls the bank account? The right answer is a legal entity. But how can you create a legal entity, when you don’t have a formal decision making body?

And so the governance task force was created.

Starting in April under the approval of the Steering Action Group, the mandate was for the task force to:
1) Propose a lifecyle of an idea with it’s involvement with DataPortability, and ultimately it’s implementation.
2) Propose a working decision making framework to be used within the DataPortability Project.

This goal encapsulated the frustration we as a community has experienced of not effectively being able to get things done; as well as a formal process of how decisions were made. Relatively simple things, but criticial DNA for any organisation that when you get into the details, is actually a difficult subject. And although Robert’s Rules of Order are a standard in the world for protocol, this is by no means easily applied to the online world and is subject to academic research .

So we did a few conference calls (some documented here ; others not documented – with a period where we did daily ones for a week); we discussed via e-mail quite a bit; as well as a chat room (which is now closed off). The final output of our discussions lead to a proposal . All but four provisions were ratified, with a crucial one being the means of how the ‘new’ steering group was seeded, which followed with further discussions and votes, and which resulted in an electoral system being adopted. As of last Friday, the Steering group was seeded, and a few days ago, we held are first Steering teleconference in accordance with the governance framework.

We still have a lot of work to do, and so a revised governance task force has been created to build on the work to date, but that’s not why I am writing this. Instead, what I wish to do is give recognition to the five individuals who made a massive effort to perform what is a very difficult task.

The people
J. Trent Adams
J. Trent Adams
Trent is one of the hardest working people I have ever come across. He magically seems to be able to balance being in the senior management of the company he founded; a dedicated husband and father; as well as contributing to the demand of the DataPortability Project which quite frankly is demanding beyond hell. To call Trent’s involvement in the DataPortability Project as simply a “participant”, is a bit like saying Steve Jobs is just an “employee” of Apple. Trent may not be the CEO, but God damn, if you need to get things done Mr Adams is your man. A Native American, whose name means ‘peacemaker’, when you have a team of people collaborating on a goal, Trent is what oil is to a car.

Brady Brim De-Forest
Brady Brim-DeForest
Brady is an intelligent man with a lot of experience to share, and like Trent, is one of the pillars of the DataPortability community. He has played a major role in executing a lot of the internal deliverables of the DataPortability Project, and having now worked with them extensively twice, I find his contribution invaluable. I have come to admire Brady’s input because he draws on his natural creative sense and his analytical mind on the back of his diverse experience as a film director, entrepreneur, consultant and man of culture. I’ve seen him churn out work previously (with the DataPortability logo competition) and it’s an privilege to think we have individuals like that involved with DataPortabiliy.

Steve Greenberg
Steve Greenberg
I don’t know what to think of Steve – he is either one of the smartest people I have ever (not) met, or he’s just done so many things in life that he’s learnt the hard way. Either way, one thing I am sure of is that he is one of the wisest guys I know. His input, in between his passionate outbursts, are second to none. I don’t want to say too much because with a great mind can also come a great ego. But put it this way: if Steve says something like go read this book, within five minutes, I’ve already got Amazon confirming my order. It takes a lot for me to respect someone, and for Steve, I have all the time in the world for him.

Brett McDowell
Brett McDowell
Brett is the executive director of Liberty Alliance. At first, I though he was extremely useful because he has so much experience in dealing with issues like this. But as time went by, I actually realised he was valuable for something else. Back in my university days, I was sitting at the end of the table with my co-founder of the now-defunct Sydney University Journalists Society (a group with 200 volunteers). We threw a question to the table, which had people shouting back answers. Standard stuff. However the turning point for me, was when my co-founder leaned over and pointed out the girl who instead of throwing “new” ideas, instead built on the original idea we proposed. It is a sign of remarkable intelligence when someone can adapt (indeed I’ve written about this before ). Needless to say, that girl is someone subsequently that I came to realise is one of the smartest people I have ever met (no secret, her name is Natalie Zerial – and quite frankly, still is); and it was observing Brett’s responses, that I came to realise another brilliant mind was in my virtual presence. That’s the long way of me saying this guy is a brilliant thinker, not to mention some other hints that proved him as a forward thinking leader.

Mike Smith
Mike Smith
Mike is a random. He never contributed to DataPortability before, and he literally popped up out of the blue. And thank God he did! A fellow Australian, he was one of the most committed members of the task force, providing an invaluable perspective grounded in common sense. He is an IT consultant (the stinky, Lotus Notes/Domino kind) and was interested in learning about our governance model for an environmental group he wants to set up. In the process however, he made an invaluable contribution. He was able to synthesise the issues, ask the right questions, and put his hand up when work needed to be done.

Gentlemen – thank you. No one outside of the task force truly recognises the work and effort put in, but this is a small token of me thanking you.

The future
Steve Greenberg is now chairing a new governance task force to update, expand, and evolve the adopted governance framework. More importantly, as we as a group operate within this framework, we offer a living example of how a distributed online community doing some tough work, can now organise. With the hundreds of man hours invested into our governance framework, I hope we can help other communities by learning our lessons and adopting our structures. Our experience is not something you can replicate overnight, and culturally, it now puts us in good stead for a bright future – but for other groups that wish to evolve from being a community that in reality is run by a benevolent dictator, I hope we can help you with an alternative solution that works better.

It’s the experience that matters

One of the great things about working on the DataPortability Project, is the exposure to some amazing thinking. Today alone, I stumped on this great piece questioning the point of a music label (via Crosbie Fitch ). Separately, I also came across this interesting bit of thinking about imagining what a world would look like without copyright . Those pieces helped give me more solid arguments with something that’s been on my mind a lot. That being, consumers don’t pay for content’s representation per se. Instead, they pay for the associated experience.

With the digital age, we have seen an uprooting of these traditional industries that operate in the content industries as we have seen with the recording & publishing industries. Our traditional approaches to managing content are being challenged, because we (or rather, they) grew complacent on the technological limitations of content distribution. However, now that we have a new type of technology to distribute content (due to computing, the Internet and the web), we are seeing greater potential for content to be consumed – and it’s also exposing something we have forgotten. The digital revolution is changing business practices but it highlights the true nature of content: it’s about the experience.

To illustrate what I mean, let’s define content as being products like music and books.

When you buy a album, you are not buying it for the physical CD or the plastic casing. The reason you are buying it, is so you can get access to the music. This access entitles you to experiencing the music. On a similar note, when you go to a concert to hear a band, you are not paying to stand in a concert hall. You are paying for the experience of hearing the music live, which also incorporates the associated experience of being a part of a crowd. Both those experiences trigger an emotional reaction – which can be positive or negative, but regardless, is what makes us feel alive. Humans pay for music, because the emotions being triggered by that content, helps them feel like humans.


Beyonce’s movements: something you pay to experience

With books, what you are purchasing is knowledge. The paper that you read the novel on, which although can sometimes been done up nicely, isn’t why you buy it. What you are buying, is an experience to consume that knowledge. Some books offer intellectual stimulation; other books offer excitement through a riveting storyline. Regardless, the experience of the book reading is what you are purchasing.

It’s about the experience, stupid
Talking about cultural artifacts like music and books is one thing. But there is no reason why we can’t consider this with information in a generic sense – as the initial data is simply a stage earlier in the value chain . In the context of my personal data, this is something that I have generated. Nothing really special about it. But it becomes special, when a web application can do interesting things with that data. That meaning, when a application can process my data in such a way that gives me a new experience.

For example, there are certain Facebook applications that reveal some interesting information about my friends, by generating insight. Knowing that 58% of my friends are male is useful when I’m considering a party (more beer and Beam; less wine and champagne). Knowing that some of my friends are traveling or living in a certain country, is useful because it gives me awareness that I can meet up with them. By Facebook allowing applications to process my data in the context of my friends, the information they can generate is a lot more valuable if Facebook locked this down. The experience of having access to this information, is not as emotionally driven as a Jane Austen book; but the experience of insight is still something I get out of it.

The ability to offer a unique experience to a consumer, is what is key to any information-based products. Triggering emotions is a powerful thing about humanity, and a consumer when consuming information is looking to get an experience which in reality can only be captured in their memory. Of course, content in the form of entertainment is more about the emotion, whilst news is more about the access , but that doesn’t take away from the inherent characteristics of information.

Recognising that information-products are an experience, should give a better understanding about what we do with them. For example, writing this blog I don’t get any monetary benefit from it. However, the more people that want to copy my "original work", the better. Whilst that may sound contrary to smart business sense, it’s because I recognise the benefit I get from blogging is reputation (well one of them at least). And despite the fact people can ‘steal’ my content, doesn’t mean they can steal my brain. As a content creator, I am being rewarded with the associated benefits of a good reputation, despite the fact I cannot assert ownership over my words.


"If you put that picture on the Internet I’ll call my lawyer"

So why do we obsess over control?
If you are a web application, a book author, or a musician – the way you make money isn’t through the information you generate. Instead, what you are being rewarded with is with a brand; a relationship with your consumer of trust; or just simply attention. Open source developers can appear to be like some hippies helping the world. But look closely at how they make a living, and it’s on the associated expertise that has been recognised onto them through their brand, which allows them to charge for consulting.

If you operate in the information industry, the way you make money is on the experience you create for the consumer – and by generating that experience, you can then create a monetary stream off it. For example, a band that no one knows about has no demand for their music. A cult following, because people get obsessed over their songs played freely everywhere, allows them to make buckets of money on merchandise and concerts. Twitter is a web application, that when I first heard about it, I would never have used it. Now that I use it, I am willing to pay for certain benefits that make my experience more enjoyable (ie, profiling of tweets, etc). Twitter has an opportunity to make money because I value the experience they offer me, and I’m willing to pay to make it a better experience.

In the information business, experience is ultimately your product. Ignore that, and you will be making decisions that at best, will amount to a huge amount of opportunity cost. Here’s hoping that as we move forward with DataPortability, the thinking of businesses can change. Locking down data is not how you make money; it’s the compelling experience you offer your consumers that is the true source of competitive advantage and ultimately, revenues.

What is data?

The leading voices in technology have exploded in discussion about data portability, data rights, and the future of web applications. As an active member in the DataPortability Policy group, here is my suggestion on how the debate needs to proceed: break it down. Michael Arrington seems pretty convinced you own all your data, but I don’t think that’s a fair thing to say – and at core is the reason he is clashing with Robert Scoble’s view. For things to proceed, I really think a deeper analysis of the issues need to be made.

1) Define the difference between data, information and knowledge. There’s a big difference.
2) Determine what things are. (is an e-mail address data or information?)
3) Recognise the difference between ownership, rights and their implications.
4) Determine what rights (if that’s what it is) the various entities have over data (users, web apps, etc).

This is a big area and has a lot of abstract concepts – break it down and debate it there.

Some of my own thoughts to give some context

1) Data is an object and information is generated when you create linkages between different types of data Рthe ‘relationships’. Knowledge is the application of information.

  • 2000 is data – a symbol with no meaning. Connect it with other data, like the noun "year", and you have information because 2008 now has meaning. Connect that information with other information, like "computer bug" and "HSBC and you now have an application of that information. That being, there was an issue with the Y2K bug that has something to the bank HSBC.

2) Define what things are

What’s an e-mail address, a phone number, a social graph, an image, a podcast…I’m not entirely sure. I wouldn’t be blogging this if I had all the answers. Once we agree on definitions, we can then start categorising them and applying a criteria.

3) Ownership:

Here is something Steve Greenberg explained to me

– Ownership is relevant when there is scarcity.
РOwnership is the ability to deny someone else’s use of the asset.
– So, if data is shared and publicly available, it is a practical impossibility for me to deny use
Рand if data is available in a form where I can’t control others’ use of it, I can not really claim to own it

Nitin Borwankar has a very different argument: you should have ownership based on property rights. He explained that to me here .

4) Rights over data

I personally think no one owns data (which is inspired by the definition of data being inherently meaningless); instead you own things further down the value chain when that data becomes something with value. You own your overall blog posts – but not the words.

But again, this goes back to what is data?

The value chain for information

Lately, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about the value chain of information, based on the Porter model of doing a value chain analysis . Given there is an undeniable trend to an knowledge-based economy (that is, if we’re not already there!), it seems pretty valuable that we should at least understand the different facets in the value chain to better understand the information sector.

Below are some thoughts about what I think are the broad aspects of the value system, with some commentary under each to help you understand my thinking. I’ve used common social computing sites to help illustrates the concepts, as everyone can relate to them. Also my definitions for data, information, and knowledge .

value chain is sweet
The value chain
1) Data collection
– value is in the storage
Competitive advantage: who offers the consumers the lowest price for the most storage. You should not just consider this in terms of cost in hosting but also about whether is costs the user their rights to control over some of their data.
Example: MySpace is where you store all your demographic data; SmugMug is where you store all your photos (which I consider data)

2) Data processing
– value is in the ability to manipulate the data
Competitive advantage: The infrastructure to process vasts amount of data at the highest output with the lowest cost
Example: Facebook calculates how many friends you have. The raw computing power to calculate the information requires substantial computing power, which is why Friendster fell when it captured the imagination of the industry as the first major social networking site.

3) Information generation
– Value is in the type and diversity of information. The connection of data (objects) is what generates information. Requires unique ability to understand what data inputs to pull.
Competitive advantage: Ability to access the most data (ie, relationships with the data storage components in the chain), and be able to creatively apply the data in a unique way.
Example: LinkedIn allows me to know that I am two degrees separated from a certain individual. The ability for LinkedIn to do that is a combination of what data they can use as well as the ability to process it. Essentially, the creativity of the company’s management to determine the feature’s value and the relationships with storage vendors or methods of using their own storage. In a DataPortability enabled world, it’s not so much how much data you can store of a user – but how much you can access from the storage vendors ie, relationships with these vendors.

4) Knowledge application
– value is in the application of information
Competitive advantage is on the application of information in a unique way that has not been done before
Example: A network analysis of my social graph. So if a social networking sites can tell me that 48% of my friends are male; and another piece of information that 98% of them are heterosexual; then therefore it is likely I am a straight male. The ability to derive insight, despite the multiple piece of information available, is filtered by those with the unique ability to recognise application of information in certain ways. The determination that I am straight is inference, which is a higher order type value as opposed to just information (which is grounded in hard data and more based on fact).

Implications of the value chain
It is important to note, and why it will be difficult for you to conceptualise the above, is that the Internet industry which is the backbone of the Information Sector of the economy, is still relatively immature. Flickr for example does most of the value chain – they store my photos, they allow me to make changes to the photos and add addition data like tags; they generate information by allowing me to organise my photos into sets (hence giving more value to the photo by putting it into context). And of course, they allow for knowledge application through their community – people passing by, leaving comments, is quite a unique thing that is unique to Flickr.

By better understanding the value chain, hopefully we can also realise that business can thrive by focussing on specific areas and it may not be in their interest to be in all areas. For example, the notion that locking up a person’s user data as being a competitive advantage is silly, if you can offer value through knowledge application.

To put the above in context, MySpace’s recent data availability announcement is a step into the direction of DataPortability (something that will take until the end of this year to finalise at minimum), but whilst Google and Facebook race to offer similar services to ‘lock’ their data, they are in fact missing the point. The value of MySpace for example is the community, and they get value in accessing data and information from as many diverse places as possible to apply that in a unique way. Because they think locking in the data is what determines their business strategy, it forces them to compete in the data storage market – and that is something I would not want to be in given the ability for it to be commoditised, and the massive compliance demands with government and user expectations with their rights. As highlighted by Nitin , data redundancy is a big issue so battling in the storage market puts you at risk if you are solely relying on it as your source for information and knowledge.

As always, I write my blog posts to extend on my thoughts. I’d love feedback and people to challenge the assumptions I’ve made, because I think this can be a very valuable tool in how we view businesses on the web.

Update 1 June 2008: Tim Bull made a video of this posting, which does a better job explaining the concepts presented above

It’s all still alpha in my eyes

The invention of hypertext has been the most revolutionary thing since two previous technologies before: the printing press and the alphabet. Combined with computing and the Internet, we have seen a new world represented by the World Wide Web that has transformed entire industries in its mere 19 15 year existence.

The web caught our imagination in the nineties, which became the Dot-Com bubble. Several years after the bust, optimism reawakened when the Google machine listed on the stock exchange – heralding a new era dubbed “web2.0”. This era has now been recognised in the mainstream, elevated by the mass adoption of the social computing services, and has once again seen the web transform traditional ideas and generate excitement.

The web2.0 era is far from over – the recent global recession however has flagged though that the pioneers of the industry are looking for something new. As the mainstream is rejuvenated by web2.0 like the Valley was not that long ago, it’s time to now look for what the next big thing will be. Innovation on the web is apparently flattening. Perhaps it has – but the seeds of the next generation of innovation on the web are already here.

Controversy of the meaning of web2.0 – and what its successor will be – should not distract us. We are seeing the web and associated technologies evolve to new heights. So the question is not when web2.0 ends, but what are we seeing now, that will dominate in the future?

My view:
• The mobile web. The mobile phone is now evolving into a generic entertainment device, becoming a new computing device that extends the reach of the internet. First with the desktop computer, and then with the laptop computer – new opportunities presented themselves in the way we could use computers. The use of this new computing platform will create new opportunities that we have only scratched the surface.
• The 3D web. Visit second life, the virtual world, as you quickly note the main driver of activity is sex and that it’s just a game. However, porn and games have spearheaded a lot of the innovation of technology in the past. The 3D web is now emerging with four separate but related trends: virtual worlds, mirror worlds, augmented reality and lifelogging.
• The data web. Data has now become a focus in the industry. The semantic web, eventually, will allow a weak form of artificial intelligence that will allow computer agents to work in an automated fashion. Vendor Relationship Management is changing the fundamental assumptions of advertising, with a new way of how we transact in our world. Those trends, when combined with the drive for portability of peoples data, is having us see the web in a new light with new potential. Not as a collection of documents, and not as a platform for computing, but as a database that can be queried.

So to get some discussion, I thought I might ping some smart people I know in the industry on what they think: Chris Saad, Daniela Barbosa, Ben Metcalfe, Ross Dawson, Mick Liubinskas, Randal Leeb-du Toit, Stewart Mader, Tim Bull, Seth Yates, Richard Giles as well as you reading this now.
What do you think is currently in the landscape that will dominate the next generation of the web?

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 .