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In this article, Nesta’s government researcher Theo Bass urges us to think about the value of our personal information in shaping our future.

Over the years we’ve heard time and time again that ‘data is the new oil’. In some ways this is an accurate analogy; it implies monopoly and extraction by which a small number of big companies have consolidated their power over the industry.

But it is also unhelpful. It leads to a mentality where we think about data primarily as a commercial asset. As the online economy has grown we’ve seen companies and governments find ways to make money from data, from data brokers that buy and sell information about our online browsing habits, to smart cities that track passers-by and target them with personalised ads. 

At Nesta, we think that radically new ideas are needed about how we maximise the public value of our personal information. If instead of asking how money can be made from data, we ask how data can be used to benefit society, then very different answers come to the fore that are about more than the better marketing of online shopping deals. 

Open data has shown some of what can be done. Live information about transport is responsible for hundreds of apps that we use in cities on a daily basis. Train apps, Google Maps and CityMapper are examples of software built on open data that makes life easier for millions of people.

Real-time information about public transport is just one part of a bigger trend towards the 'datafication' of our everyday lives. The increasing prevalence of wearables and smart home devices are signs that the breadth and depth of our digital trails will explode over the coming years. 

Here, highly personal data (about user behaviour, health, emotion and so on) has the potential to unlock massive public value. Our digital footprints are already helping policymakers make better decisions, equipping charities to respond better to natural disasters, and even allowing us to better understand or predict disease.

As data gets more and more intimate, the challenge will be how to balance these opportunities against the increasing risk of harm caused by misuse. For this, we will need much more imagination about how to find trustworthy mechanisms for sharing personal data.

Current business models won’t do. In the current online economy, people are asked to give up all control over personal data. Companies take advantage of the fact that individuals by themselves don’t have much bargaining power – which is why most people just click ‘I agree’ when faced with long and complicated terms and conditions. 

In response, some are exploring more democratic mechanisms for harnessing data’s value, where groups of people can pool and leverage their digital footprints on terms decided collectively. This is where it is useful to think less about data as a commodity to be bought and sold, and more as a shared asset or common good.

One idea gaining traction is that of data trusts, where potentially sensitive or commercial data is handed to an independent, democratically accountable body, and where information is anonymised and made available for public benefit on neutral terms. 

When it comes to more intimate personal data we could look to the increasing the prevalence of data cooperatives. Examples focusing on improving healthcare, like Midata.coop and Salus.coop, embed transparency and participation in how decisions about sensitive information are made. Patients gain collective influence by pooling data and creating a valuable resource which pharmaceutical companies can access, but only on specific conditions (such as openness about the results of medical trials). 

One of the principles of income generation for Midata.coop is that any revenue made is reinvested back into the preservation of the platform, to avoid the capture by specific interest groups or shareholders. Like traditional commons – such as fishing waters, or forests – the conditions of use for data commons are structured to preserve and improve the value of the collective asset over time.

Technology can also help to underpin some of these new models. Projects like Blockstack, Sovrin and the DECODE project (on which Nesta is a partner) are building new foundations for data-sharing on the internet, allowing people to create granular licenses for how others access personal data, effectively flipping the current terms-and-conditions model on its head. 

For DECODE, the aim is to test the software with communities in Barcelona and Amsterdam, giving people simple tools that let them decide whether to keep their data private, or to share anonymous insights with neighbours, policymakers, or for broader communal use.

Most of these solutions are embryonic. But if we are going to build a digital economy that works better for our society and our democracy, then we will need much more experimentation and a willingness to explore how new commons for personal data can best be run, governed and held to account.

Nesta is a global innovation foundation. It backs new ideas to tackle the big challenges of our time, through its knowledge, networks, funding and skills. Nesta works in partnership with others, including governments, businesses and charities. It is a UK charity that works all over the world, supported by a financial endowment. 

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