Could ‘rich data’ become a local commodity?

“The data we create about ourselves should be owned by each of us, not by the large companies that harvest it,” said Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the world wide web, speaking yesterday at IPExpo Europe at London’s Excel Centre.

Berners-Lee’s address challenged the big data hype and said that it is wasted on its current owners (big companies) who only use it to serve ‘ever more queasy targeted advertising’. It can often feel like we are being spied upon.

communitydata-1024x682When we first began designing Mapify, one of the main aims for the tool was that it would visualise the impact and network data of a local organisation, service provider or independent business and make it accessible to the wider community. Essentially we wanted to build a directory of local impact and give community members the tools to manage their own data.

However as development of the tool progressed, we quickly realised that Mapify will only reach its full potential if it successfully educates communities about the potential of data. Councils, companies and corporates make so many decisions based on what data tells them. They use it to observe, describe and influence human behaviour. Services, places, transport, products, advertising (the list goes on) are all guided by data to build, design for and sell to the masses.

So what if communities who make up the data digits learnt to take full advantage of data generation, storage, aggregation and visualization. What kind of advantages could this afford them?

Berners-Lee’s words yesterday, encouraging people to look a little closer at the big data picture, reassured us that perhaps community owned data was not such a crazy idea. He said: “By gaining access to their own data, people could use it with information about themselves from other sources in order to create rich data – a far more valuable commodity than mere big data.”

Could a community take control of what data is collected (© Alex Pielak)
Could a community take control of what data is collected (© Alex Pielak)
Instead of big data being used for targeted ads, Berners-Lee suggests: ”users should own their own data and be free to merge it with other sets as and when it could provide them useful insight.”

The grassroots power of data was also heavily advocated during Adam Greenfield’s public lecture A City Worth Fighting For at the London School of Economics the other week. A topic that he and a variety of guests also picked apart during a one day conversation at LSE in March this year called Urban data: From fetish object to social object.

One of the most surprising and inspiring contributions to the forward thinking debate was Layla Lasarki, Co-founder of Living Under One Sun (LOUS). Speaking from a position unique to most other experts in the room that day, Lasarki eloquently expressed her frustration with ONS datasets. She was not and didn’t claim to be an expert in big data but she was definitely an expert in her community.

Lasarki felt strongly that data is so often used to describe a place, but actually gives little context to the life experiences of the people that live there. How much do the people that make up those numbers actually understand that is how they are categorised to the world outside their neighbourhood. Lasarki’s question to the room was how could we match the individual up with their data and start to tell a different story, one that better reflects local life?’

LOUS’ community projects are based in Northumberland Park and serve communities based in and around White Hart Lane and Tottenham Hale in the east of the London borough of Haringey. Northumberland Park has one of the highest rates of disengagement and poverty, and is one of the poorest wards in the UK. Negative indicators such as high levels of teenage pregnancy, youth violence and antisocial behaviour, second and third generations of unemployed, a high incidence of child poverty and infant mortality, and poor quality social housing are used to describe the communities living in this part of London. There is of course, an unfortunate truth behind these stats that present major challenges for the area. However it is exactly these statistics that frustrates Lasarki, because under her sun she sees her community in a different light.

A screenshot from Living Under One Sun’s Doors project (© Living Under One Sun)
A screenshot from Living Under One Sun’s Doors project (© Living Under One Sun)

LOUS ran a very interesting project in the winter of 2013 that offers a shining example of how Greenfield’s ‘People Making Data’ rule could be interpreted. Employing a team of thirteen local residents for £10 per hour and training them to collect local data. The team door-knocked on 10,000 homes and had conversations with residents about their personal travel behaviour whilst raising awareness of walking, cycling and different public transport options.

“What the team did not know was how the life and the stories of the people living behind these doors in their local neighbourhoods would make them feel about where they live”

(LUOS on their Doors project, watch their project video here).

LUOS project brought local people face-to-face with local data and from that they drew their own results and positive conclusions. Mapify’s take on data storytelling is similar to that of LUOS, to bring communities closer to their data so that they can use it to offer alternative insight and tell different kinds of success stories locally.

The idea of a web focused around letting users easily find, share and combine information is promoted by Berners-Lee. The power of combining our own data could be invaluable. As Berners-Lee says:

“If you put together all that data, from my wearable, my house, from other companies like the credit card company and the banks, from all the social networks, I can give my computer a good view of my life, and I can use that. That information is more valuable to me than it is to the cloud.”

Like Berners-Lee we are keen to see a shift in data access and usage. For example what could locally owned data mean for a community and what advantages could it have for things like the local economy? It will be interesting to find out if a community pools their rich data whether they can produce a commodity far more valuable than the pot apparently waiting at the end of the big data rainbow.