Blog

Data and Owner

— by

By Usman Haque and Ed Borden. Published in ‘Volume #28: Internet of Things’.

Pachube, a data brokerage platform for (sensory) data, positions itself at the fore of what is emerging as a global network of millions of exchangeable data sets. Such a platform, in combination with the emergent technological landscape, then raises questions about a very slippery topology of relations to data. The slipperiness of the current times can be seen as rooted in the novelty of our current state on both individual and corporate fronts. As the US Bill of Rights provided a reassurance of the rights to human liberty, Usman Haque and Ed Borden have crafted a new Bill of Rights for our emerging state of Things.

Pachube Internet of Things Bill of Rights
1. People own the data they (or their ‘things’) create.
2. People own the data someone else creates about them.
3. People have the right to access data gathered from public space.
4. People have the right to access their data in full resolution in real-time.
5. People have the right to access their data in a standard format.
6. People have the right to delete or backup data they own.
7. People have the right to use and share their data however they want.
8. People have the right to keep their data private.

The Pachube Internet of Things Bill of Rights is a document in transition. It’s an attempt to build up consensus around what we urban citizens should expect of the data that is being gathered, and will be gathered more insistently, by devices, sensors and monitors in our high-growth massively networked cities. We proposed the Bill earlier this year to our global community of ‘internet of things’ enthusiasts and we did so not because we conform to all its strictures, but because we believe we should conform to them. We wanted to foster conversation around what rights the Pachube community believes are important so we can make sure to build them into our realtime data brokering system (www.pachube.com). Conversation has been ripe. Feedback included this statement from Adam Greenfield (an inspirational luminary in discussions on the future of urban sensor data): ”the owners of a sensor that is in (or is capable of gathering information from) public space ought not to have any expectation of privacy as to their identity and the capabilities of their devices”. A fascinating question was later posed at a conference: the Bill seems to be all about ‘people’ and their data; don’t animals and other non-humans also have rights in the Internet of Things? This is an important question because we understand better every day just how vital non-human participants and systems are to our own physical and environmental health. Data ownership will continue to be one of the defining issues of this decade. As the Internet of Things matures, clear lines will be drawn as cities and civic technologies generate more data, companies bring products and services to market, organizations structure collaboration across data aggregation and people (because people are what it’s all about) struggle to make sense of all of this data.

There are two ways this could play out. The first is that cities and companies could continue to operate as they always have: controlling people’s access to their data and limiting its use to single, pre-defined services and applications. If it plays out this way, businesses will attempt to profit through vendor lock-in and by making it difficult for people to ‘switch-out’ of their services. Cities (or city managers) will attempt to retain control of urban activity by locking down or restricting access to data. The second way it could play out, which is the way we at Pachube see the future, is that cities and businesses could recognize as inevitable that they will have to unlock data from the silos they have been restraining it within because it’s the only way that a technology-structured city can survive. We want to see people being able to exploit the full potential of the data generated by their devices and environments. We believe people own that data, not the companies whose devices they have bought, or the city managers who are monitoring them. We want to see businesses building devices with which consumers decide what service to use with the data generated by those devices. We want to see developers maximizing the value built on top of data and constantly innovating to create better applications. We want to help encourage data-oriented applications, products and services that people choose based on their own merits. The cities we inhabit are the accretions of millennia of interactions. We (re)create our cities with every step we take, every conversation we have, every nod to a neighbor, every space we inhabit, every structure we erect. Yet the Internet of Things in an urban context offers the possibility of both citizen-led sense-making and authoritarian control structures that are different to anything that has come before. The question we constantly pose is how can we encourage the former and resist the latter? How can we call on human beings’ creative capacity to repurpose and reinterpret technology rather than build on the fear-laden security-conscious projections that some big businesses (and many media figures) will have us see as inevitable?

Opening up data, which is very popular right now in metropolises across the world, is certainly a useful first step. It enables a level of accountability by citizens of the urban processes and systems (such as crime rates, energy expenditure, air quality data, transportation schedules) that was not previously evident. But it’s worth bearing in mind that simply opening up data is not enough. When a government organization allows access to its data, laudable as that is, close inspection is still required. We must question how and why they opened up that data. Is it because it’s non-threatening? How was it compiled or measured? What data was left out? How might it have been used to obscure something else? In essence: how was the data crafted? You may notice, for example, that in many of these cases the data is not realtime: it’s composed of static files that have been pre-screened, smoothed, cleaned. Data does not simply exist ‘out there’ somewhere, just waiting for us to pluck it from the passive ether of objectivity. It is vital to remember that data is constructed, selected, refined and critiqued; and data collection itself is a craft, whether undertaken by scientists, by authoritative entities or by individual members of the public.

Regarding environmental data, the crafting of data is especially important to consider because how we use data to take action upon our own environments directly impacts others who share our spaces, our cities and our planet. Opening up data can itself be considered a control structure – a means of representing action without doing anything at all, while continuing to justify mass invasions of privacy, invasions into data created by and belonging to citizens. So the real question is not about making data public, but about finding ways for the public to make data. How do all of us, as citizens, contribute to the data collection process? How do we learn from and understand our environments through the data we create or craft? How can it help us question the standards of evidence we are asked to believe in and comply with by authority figures, politicians, scientists, media personalities and religious leaders?

Pachube is not simply about making data openly available. It’s about developing a platform that makes it as easy as possible for everyone – citizens, organizations, companies and city managers alike – to produce, aggregate, share and compare environmental data, sensor data, energy data and any other sort of arbitrary data, data that may be generated by devices, by buildings, by sensors, or even by virtual environments. We want to make it as easy as possible to create and to use applications that are built on that data. We’re trying to build a trust network in which citizens, developers, businesses and cities can contribute to a sustainable data future via an open data delivery and discoverability framework. Opening up data processes like this dramatically increases the chances that someone else will extract value from the data or do something useful: I don’t know why my data might be valuable, but I bet somebody else will be able to help figure that out. It can cascade: when people see others measuring then they want to get involved too, with concomitant network effects. Data is only of any use when it’s considered valuable by someone. Crowdsourcing has the benefit of increasing the quality of tools for making sense of that data as well as the data itself. Measuring something means you start to understand better your capacity to effect the environment, but also understand what you can do to improve your own situation. You figure out what convinces YOU yourself. You have agency. Open data increases this engagement. An open data framework, enabling crowdsourced data aggregation, also means a lot more data points, geographically and historically distributed. There’s a good argument for saying this is not clean data; but even in official datasets there is a need to clean up outlier points, adjust for dynamic range, etc. What these, usually considerable, extra data points get you is a more detailed picture of trends, a better of idea of what’s actually happening in realtime, and maybe even a better picture of things that the official datasets weren’t even looking for.

The Internet of things is coming. It’s clear that our growing cities of massive sensor networks will bring with them all sorts of weird, wonderful and worrying data shadows. We want to find a way we can all be a part of the process of defining what that data is, how it is collected and what is done with it. This article is full of questions because we don’t have the answers. Join the conversation. Help create the Internet of Things Bill of Rights. We want to help you build the Internet of Things. In the end, it will be up to all of us citizens, in the Internet of Things, to make this a reality.