Data Ownership

We’re constantly dealing in data—creating it, using it, exchanging it—as we move through the world with our location-enabled phones, tap to pay for our morning coffee, or spend a few minutes doing pretty much any online activity.

The data points that result are collected (we don’t always know by whom) and analyzed (or traded to third parties for analysis), revealing constellations of behavior that hold great value for businesses, but could also unearth more about us than we’ve bargained for. Do we really believe that certain datasets—about daily travel patterns, healthcare consumption and genetic testing, what other phones our phone charges next to at night—can truly be anonymized, and not merely de-identified?

The advent of Web 2.0 has taken the internet from “read only” to “read and write”. We’re now in a world that also enables data ownership. But what does ownership actually mean? Not simply possession, but the ability to use something, even to the point of deleting or destroying it, as the owner sees fit. Even when ownership entails virtual, rather than a physical, possession, it conveys the ability to use, utilize, and derive value, as well as the ability to keep others from using or deriving value from the same item.

To truly own data means that the owner holds the keys, can determine who else might have access and utilization (perhaps for a price), and can “lock out” anyone who they wish to exclude. It means that when the data has special value, either on its own or based on the insights it can generate, that value is captured primarily by the owner, and not by a third party.

Businesses that have profited from their aggregation of consumer data may perceive technologies enabling greater democratization of data ownership as a threat. They should look for the opportunities. Enterprises generate vast quantities of proprietary data that may have value within, or even beyond, their sector, that remains locked at present, but could be plumbed (“monetized?”) with the right technological combination of vaults, keys, and audit trails. Data economic networks can connect data generators, no matter how small or individual, with large enterprises that want to incentivize such data generation and can benefit from insights only findable across a collective. Such networks can remove hurdles to scalability, or eliminate expensive middlemen.

Data ownership unlocks data utility. New technologies unlock true data ownership. What resulting data economies can we imagine?