Data as a Human Right

This post was originally published on the World Economic Forum Blog.

Data has the power to transform our lives – collectively and individually. What is needed to unlock the profound opportunity data affords to improve the human condition – and to defend against a multitude of threats – is not technical, but an ethical framework for its use by and beyond those who initially collect it, including providing access to individuals.

At its most fundamental level, data about individuals represents a new kind of “digital self” that cannot be easily distinguished from the physical person. Some consider it a form of property; others a form of expression or speech. Those working in the area of genomics often view personal data as the DNA sequences that make us truly unique. Whatever lens one uses, it has become increasingly clear that the consequences of how personal data is used are every bit as real for people and society as any material, physical or economic force.

Properly harnessed by ethical practitioners, the principled use of “big data” sets can improve our economies, create jobs, reduce crime, increase public health, identify corruption and waste, predict and mitigate humanitarian crises, and lessen our impact on the environment. Similarly, empowering individuals with access to reusable copies of data collected by others, also called “small data”, can help them drastically improve the quality of their lives, from making better financial, education and health decisions, to saving time and reducing friction in discovering and accessing private and public sector services. Evidence of the positive impact of leveraging data, by both institutions and individuals, abounds.

However, data, like the technology that generates it, is in and of itself neutral. It can be used for good or ill. With a proper, ethical framework, data can – and should – be leveraged for the benefit of humankind, simultaneously at the societal, organizational and individual level. Misused, its power to harm and exploit is similarly unlimited.

In fact, what raises the ethical use and respect for data potentially into the realm of a fundamental human right is its ability to describe and reveal unique human identity, attributes and behaviors – and its power to affect a person’s, and a society’s, well-being as a result. Just as in the physical world, basic rights and opportunities must be preserved.

Indeed, it is already well recognized that invasions of our digital privacy can be exploited for repression, and that technologies for sharing data can be harnessed to support freedom. More fundamentally, though, we need to extend our core rights themselves into the digital world. For example, we must adapt our notion of freedom of thought to account for the new reality that much of our thinking goes on in digital spaces – as does the management and sharing of our most private information. Preserving individual freedom will now  require  protecting  autonomy with respect to our own data.

Clearly, cultural and regional differences regarding human rights in the analog, physical world are sure to arise in this digital, data-oriented world. We do not seek to resolve those issues, but to develop a clear framework of principles to help provide data, data access and data use the protections they deserve.

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By Shane Green in Power Shift

Get Personal with us at SXSW

The Personal Team will be out in full force at SXSW Interactive this year. In addition to holding sessions to create a people’s digital bill of rights and share our insights on building a company that follows “privacy by design” principles (details below), we’re here to spread the word about small data.

What is small data?

Small data is big data for individuals. It puts the power and tools of big data, which is geared toward the needs of companies and governments, and not individuals, into the hands of people.

While some say that data is the new oil, we at Personal believe that small data is the new oil.

Learn more about small data >>

Discover #smalldata on Twitter >>

If you spot one of us at SXSW (our t-shirts will give us away), please say hi!

Join us at SXSW

Personal’s CEO Shane Green and CTO Tarik Kurspahic will represent the company at the following sessions on Sunday, March 11. We hope to see you there!

We the People: Creating a Consumer’s Bill of Rights

Date: March 11, 2012 at 11:00 a.m. CT

Location: InterContinental Stephen F. Austin Hotel, Assembly Room

Co-Facilitators: Shane Green, co-founder & CEO, Personal; Anne Bezancon, founder & President, Placecast

Join the #mydatarights conversation >>

How to Build Privacy by Design into Web and Mobile

Date: March 11, 2012 at 12:30 p.m. CT

Location: Hyatt Regency Austin, Texas Ballroom 4-7

Speaker: Tarik Kurspahic, CTO, Personal

Join the #privacy360 conversation >>


Your Personal guide to Austin

As you plan your time at SXSW, we thought we’d offer up these handcrafted Gems of information about Austin essentials, brought to you by Personal.

Learn more about Gems >>

Note: To view this information, you must be logged in to your Personal account.

Austin 6th Street Bars

Indie Austin Coffee Shops

Austin Taxi Companies

Austin BBQ

Downtown Austin Food Carts

Austin Live Music Venues

For real-time updates and tips throughout SXSW, follow us on Twitter. We look forward to getting Personal with you!

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The Era of Small Data Begins

This is the first post in a series on the rise of small data* and the new platforms, tools and rules to empower people with their data. It was written for “The Rise of Big Data” panel at the Stanford Graduate School of Business E-Conference on March 6, 2012.

Big data is big business

More data is created every year or so than has been created in all of human history. In this always-on, always-connected world, where even things are being plugged into the Web, the amount of data is growing exponentially.

The collection, storage, analysis, use and monetization of all that data is called “big data.” Corporations and governments are hyper-focused on becoming big data experts to avoid being permanently left behind. The first movers to master the art and science of big data are already changing the way we live, while disrupting industries and amassing fortunes at speeds never before seen.

Given the stakes, massive investments are being made every year to build the technology and expertise required to succeed in big data, optimized, of course, around the needs of companies and governments, not individuals. Industry experts have likened this big data boom to the early days of “big oil,” and refer to data as the “new oil.” Just as oil was essential to building the modern industrial economy, data has become the lifeblood of the new digital economy.

Companies must learn to compete in big data regardless of their industry, or else face obsolescence. This is a tough challenge and touches all aspects of the operations, strategy and culture of companies. At the same time, opportunities abound as entirely new industries are emerging around data as they did around oil — sourcing, extracting, refining, mining, analyzing, distributing, and selling large sets of data.

Big data creates big problems

With its insatiable appetite for digital bits and bytes on each of us, big data is driving a virtual arms race to capture and exploit information about our every move. Big data will log the life of a child born in 2012 in such a way that the person’s activities will be able to be reconstructed not just by the day, but by the hour or minute. In the hands of bad actors, the potential for wrongdoing with these permanent and growing archives of our lives is real and rightfully concerning.

Yet, until recently, people had virtually no idea of big data’s existence as its tools and marketplaces remained largely hidden. The next generation of tracking and data mining technologies are being created based on the assumption that individuals do not care enough to change their online and mobile behavior, which confuses lack of interest with the current lack of alternatives.

But with privacy and security concerns now front-page news, and the financial triumphs of companies built entirely from personal data such as Facebook, Google and LinkedIn, people are waking up and starting to ask tough questions. While companies and government regulators negotiate over how to curb the most egregious risks and abuses, a new and more powerful model is emerging that is designed around the needs and interests of people, providing them a far better, more sustainable alternative to the status quo.

Enter small data

Small data puts the power and tools of big data into the hands of people. It is based on the assumption that people have a significant long-term competitive advantage over companies and governments at aggregating and curating the best and most complete set of structured, machine-readable data about themselves and their lives – the “golden copy”. With proper tools, protections and incentives, small data allows each person to become the ultimate gatekeeper and beneficiary of their own data.

Built on privacy by design and security by design principles, small data can help people become smarter, healthier, and make better, faster decisions. It can help people discover new experiences more easily, reclaim time in their busy lives, and enjoy deeper, more positive relationships with others.

Small data can also greatly improve the capacity and performance of governments and non-governmental institutions, from eliminating time-consuming forms and other inefficient data practices, to improving public health and education by leveraging the power of more accurate and complete data provided with an individual’s permission. Such institutions can also help share important data with individuals, allowing them to have a copy for their own use.

Applied to commerce, small data holds the promise of connecting people with the best and most relevant products and services in a safe and anonymous environment. It can transform advertising into a more respectful, less disruptive industry that rewards people for their time and engagement with their messages and for their purchases. Small data offers customers the opportunity to better balance and assert their interests with companies (some have called this model Vendor Relationship Management (VRM)). Companies who play by these new rules and earn the trust of individuals will be rewarded with access to rich and robust data otherwise unavailable, giving them instant competitive advantages over companies who choose to go it alone.

The first small data platform – a data vault, private network and apps

Personal has spent over two years designing, building and launching the first scalable small data platform. At its core is a secure data vault to aggregate and store structured and unstructured data from just about any source. A private, personal network sits on top to set permissions for data to enter or exit the vault. People are able to connect with other people through the network, and soon with companies, apps, and private or public institutions, and decide which, if any, of their data they are willing to grant them permission to access.

We have put equal weight on privacy and security, and on helping people leverage their own data in exciting, new ways. These concepts are inextricably linked in small data, which requires a high degree of trust to function properly. Similarly, we have rewritten the legal rules of data ownership to protect and empower users, who we call owners. And, because we know relationships can sometimes end, we have built what we believe is the most complete data portability and deletion capabilities in a data platform. Trust doesn’t work unless you are truly free to leave.

In addition to launching our own apps in the coming months, we are inviting developers to apply for early access to build apps on our platform to show off the power and benefits of small data. Individuals have never imagined the magic of running apps on reusable, structured data about the most important things in their lives, while developers have never assumed having access to such high quality data on which to innovate. The possibilities are limitless.

We are excited to help usher in this new era where permission, transparency and privacy become the norm, and where companies and governments have to align around new rules and provide clear and compelling benefits in order to earn access.

At Personal, we see the future through the lens of small data — and we think it will change everything.

*I first heard the term “small data” in a talk by Jeremie Miller, co-founder of Singly, at the Web 2.0 Summit in November 2011, and it’s one that stuck with me. Doc Searls included a passage from the talk in his new book, The Intention Economy (Boston: Harvard Business Review Press, 2012), p. 196:

You need to have a home for your data. I’m trying aggressively to define this home, in… the best software, the best technology, the best legal terms. This home is yours — that you own, that you control. And this home is for your data.

This ability for you to have it and share it out, is going to transform our industry, over the next ten years. There is going to be this tectonic shift, as everything sort of re-shapes and re-centers itself around people, around individuals, and around the mountains of data that they have… Everybody talks about ‘big data.’ This isn’t big data. This is going to be the era of small data, of my data.


By Shane Green in Power Shift

Why Personal is Sponsoring the Wall Street Journal’s Data Transparency Weekend

A three-day code-a-thon dedicated to working on free Web tools to promote data transparency? That’s the idea behind the Wall Street Journal’s inaugural Data Transparency Weekend taking place April 13-15 in New York City, which Personal is proud to co-sponsor with The Internet Society.

When the WSJ approached us about a sponsorship opportunity, we were enthusiastic to jump on board. For more than a year, the Journal’s “What They Know” series has documented the rise of the multi billion-dollar industry centered on the use of personal data (“big data”) by companies. This event promises to promote transparent data practices across the Web through developing solutions to reveal the prevalence of tracking, provide visibility into how much information people share, and improve software that helps people to control sensitive information.

Here are our top three reasons for being involved in the weekend and why, if you’re a programmer, you’ll want to participate, too:

1. As a startup, we embrace the philosophy that, “If you’re the smartest person in a room, you’re [usually] in the wrong room.” We look forward to being in the company of well-respected Internet privacy experts Julia Angwin, Ashkan Soltani, Sid Stamm, Daniel Weitzner and others.

2. For the first time, we’re making our “small data” platform available to developers. It will be exciting to see what these coders can build on top of a platform designed to facilitate the creation of privacy- and security-minded consumer applications.

3. When 100 coders get in a room together, magic starts to happen. That’s why we’re sending a team of our own developers to partake in this collaborative experience.

If you’re a coder, product developer or engineer, we encourage you to submit your application and join us in NYC!

Event Details

Date: April 13-15, 2012
Location: New York University School of Law
Cost: Free
Application: Currently accepting applications at

For more information about this event, please take a look at today’s press release.

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