How to decentralise our data
Why is splitting off from centralised systems such an appealing thing? And perhaps for some more than others. Innovation is a broad church, and while some of us may be itching to take on the banks and the governments by tearing up the paving stones (you do you – waiting for an invite to the barricades), others among us would just like to see viable alternatives to failing centralised systems (and that's cool, too). But for most of us who care about innovation, decentralisation is a force of general good, one that's fascinating, and that may well win in the end.
I think that's because we as individuals are both centralised and decentralised. We are part of cultural and social systems that operate in centralised ways: schools, companies, universities; as well as semi-decentralised systems, like families and social groups. But we are also ourselves, we have interiority, we have the right to do things privately, and to different personas and performances of identity.
For the most part, we need both – we are both. And it's not just a public/private distinction; sometimes we operate anonymously or privately within a centralised system, and sometimes we are happy to be identifiable within a decentralised one, but that's for another issue.
We are already well kitted out with centralised systems, and I think that's why we're all so psyched about the prophesised new era of decentralised ones, they offer entirely new models for working. When you're familiar with one way of doing something, alternate ways are sort of invisible, or unimaginable. Well, now we have the tech to make them imaginable.
HAT is an example of that. We know in our brains and our guts that a decentralised model of data ownership, where we all own a copy of the data we generate to do with what we please, is a better model. Though one that is interoperable with the centralised systems that we use, too. APIs allow data to flow between companies, and from my screen-tapping digital labour to companies, but, even with the tech that gives us our own personal set of APIs, it's a proving a struggle to get companies to free our data to us. We're trying to decentralise, but the current world has't yet caught up with our own capability to handle decentralisation, and so we can't get to our data. In other words, we can consent to our data being shared between companies, but we can't consent to our data being given to us, because the law doesn't recognise that we are technologically equipped enough to have that capability. So some of us are trying to nudge companies along with a new tack.
Everyone has the right to a little thing called a Subject Access Request – which roughly translates as 'Please can you share a copy of the data you have associated with me'. Now, am I going to get that data as an incomprehensible PDF in the mail? Or am I going to get it through a nice tidy API straight into a graph in my HAT? There's not much you can do with a pdf, but with APIs, there is a whole myriad of possibilities for empowered, decentralised individually-controlled data, because you can use it. Right now, our Chairman Professor Irene Ng is sending letters out to the likes of Spotify, LinkedIn, and banks (cheers, Open Banking), to ask for API access. Join her Telegram group. It's wicked fun. And turns out, we're not the only ones, The FT is at it too...
As much as we like a little mischief, what we really want is for companies to see why granting us meaningful access, and data we can actually use, is something they benefit from embracing just as much as us.