Open letter to the UN Data Revolution Group

Tim O’Reilly, Professor Sandy Pentland and all members of the Independent Expert Advisory Group on the Data Revolution for Sustainable Development, United Nations.


  • The Data Revolution Group consultation concluding 15th October 2014
  • The hi:project – transforming interfaces, securing privacy, driving mutual value from data, and supporting self-knowledge.

Philip Sheldrake, CEng, on behalf of the hi:project.

15th October 2014.


Dear Sirs,

The Report of the High-level Panel of Eminent Persons on the Post-2015 Development Agenda [1] (May 2013) called for:

… a data revolution for sustainable development, with a new international initiative to improve the quality of statistics and information available to citizens. We should actively take advantage of new technology, crowd sourcing, and improved connectivity to empower people with information on the progress towards the targets.

A Life of Dignity for All [2] (July 2013), a report by the United Nations Secretary-General dedicated to accelerating progress towards the Millennium Development Goals, asserts that such progress be:

supported by pioneering approaches to data and rigorous accountability mechanisms.

To this end, the Independent Expert Advisory Group on the Data Revolution for Sustainable Development [3] was formed 29th August 2014 to report by the beginning of November 2014, and this letter is written on behalf of the hi:project in response to the Group’s consultation process concluding 15th October. The Group is challenged with considering the accessibility of data, assessing progress towards the Goals, data innovation, and fitting all these together.

Here I offer a brief context and introduction to the hi:project, and explain its relation to each of the Group’s considerations. We hope you might consider our endeavour one of the innovations your report should cover.

The hi:project

It’s personal

Personal data should be just that, personal. But the qualities of data and information flows have no pre-digital precedent, so pre-digital connotations of ownership are inadequate at best, disabling at worst.

Data of itself is just discrete, objective facts, and humans do not readily digest or understand data. Rather, we deal in information; that is data made useful and relevant. A collection of data is not information, for that it also requires context and understanding, and that context and understanding often comes from considering one set of data amongst others. Therefore, locking data up in secured personal repositories is far from optimal for anyone.

Personal data must be allowed to breathe for it to be of most value to the individual and society, and the corresponding parameters are best set by the individual in question with clear appreciation for the mutual value thus realised or suppressed. Perhaps such facility allows us the opportunity to move beyond the societal question of whether to lend the individual or the collective primacy, recognizing instead that each is always enabled by the other.

This new regard for personal data is, as you will know, succinctly expressed in the World Economic Forum report, Unlocking the power of personal data: From collection to usage (PDF) [4], specifically Figure 2, reproduced here [5].

However, the status quo is not dominated by personal data vaults, but corporate ones [6]:

One of the biggest problems with big data is that currently it is almost all solely in the hands of the private sector. How can this data be made more public? The point was made that this fact is troubling from a development perspective as the private sector has very different objectives to the public sector and is not necessarily invested in the post-2015 agenda.

It is this situation that has propagated interest in personal data vaults, but the hi:project breaks us free of this apparent dilemma. Moreover, it does not require legislation or revolution, but rather taps into well understood societal, technical and market mechanics to effect the change. Slowly but surely.

It’s all in the mix

Mr. O’Reilly, in a recent article – #IoTH: The Internet of Things and Humans [7] – you generalize the Internet of Things paradigm as:

… sensors + network + actuators + local and cloud intelligence + creative UI for gathering both explicit and implicit instructions from humans.

As the name of our project conveys, we pivot our vision around the concept of the human interface (HI) and its gradual dominance over UI [8]. The UI is a 50 year old construct fit for 20th Century computing whereas the HI is core to the pervasive digital environment of the 21st Century. The UI belongs to the organization whereas the HI belongs to the individual. The UI is anchored in branded silos whereas the HI spans the facets of life. The UI provides interactive information whereas the HI enables knowledge building.

The hi:project interweaves concepts and innovations from a broad range of areas beyond human-computer interaction including sociology and the future of organization, tech architecture intent on decentralization, vendor relationship management, quantified self, internet of things, social business and digital transformation, and education and learning. Our project exists to bring these different communities together, learning from and building on each other, synthesizing the respective insights and knowledge interwoven by common values and purpose.

Aligning with some of the work pursued by you and your team Professor Pentland at MIT Center for Collective Intelligence [9], our vision moves beyond the parent-child dynamic of surveillance and sousveillance towards the adult-adult interaction we label socioveillance. Such facility is critical if we are to scale up human relationships to correspond with every other facet of organization scaled up during the 20th Century, if we are to encourage or at least accommodate emergence of self-organization, of leaner and more responsive organization.

The hi:project vision is told in the form of a short presentation stack on our homepage [10].

In relation to the Group’s considerations

Your Group is consulting across four areas, and I have commented briefly on each in our context:

Accessible data

[11] Unlike the typical focus of UI on “mr average”, presentation of information via the human interface (HI) is compatible with the individual’s level of literacy. It may also help to improve the individual’s literacy over time.

Our project aims to make it easier for individuals to understand how personal data is used and by whom and for what purpose. Mutual value is recognised and reflected back to the individual where and when societal benefit is accrued.

Measuring progress on the Goals

[12] The hi:project facilitates the sharing of citizen generated data.

We emphasise the self-managed quantified-self [13] and organised-self in which individuals pull expertise towards themselves rather than outsource it, where each of us acquires agency as sense-maker, and where sense-making is enhanced with statistical context.

Data Innovation

[14] The hi:project has identified clear incentives to the private and public sectors to supplement UI with HI and eventually to transition entirely. These include elimination of capital expenditure, reduced operational expense and risk, and improvements in terms of stakeholder experiences, participation, trust and loyalty.

The hi:project encourages the development of the next phase of the networked society, facilitating more effective collaboration between the demos, public and private sectors, enshrining privacy in the context of communal benefit.

In terms of data innovation, the Group’s website asserts [14]:

Much of the big data with the most potential to be used for public good is collected by the private sector. As such, public-private partnerships are likely to become more widespread.

We agree with the first sentence, but the advent of the hi:project doesn’t necessarily require that the second sentence follows. Rather, instead of thinking in terms of traditional organizational structures in either private or public sector, we facilitate the emergence of new forms of organization [15].

Data landscape

[16] With respect to the overall data landscape, the Group asks:

What are the priority actions in the first 1-2 years following the agreement of new goals that can set the right course for long-term improvements and innovations in data collection and use by governments and citizens?

We consider that change is best founded on:

  • mutual understanding – understanding points of view and reasons for those points of view
  • mutual influence – mutual revision / adaption of opinions and behaviours
  • mutual value – recognising the value contributed and the value derived.

In a systems thinking respect, we hope then that the hi:project will not only help to establish the “data revolution”, but will play a role in effecting constant adjustment to both the articulation of new goals and their achievement. In other words, helping divine the optimum position on the deliberate-emergent strategy [17] spectrum for the data revolution and future UN goals.

Open, decentralized and inclusive

The hi:project is focused on many of the same objects as your Group. It is focused on the privacy concerns harboured by more and more people, as expressed recently by Sir Tim Berners-Lee [18]. It is focused on being transformative yet entirely pragmatic.

It requires nothing but the new combination of existing technologies. It’s agnostic when it comes to personal data stores. It is open, decentralized and inclusive. And we believe it attracts the altruist, yet is intent on helping the community derive all the value it contributes by walking the talk.

We consider the hi:project of equal import to the developing world as developed, and just as we find communities today coming straight to mobile, skipping landlines and PCs, we hope similarly many will skip UI straight to HI in the future.

You can read statements from our champions on our website here [19].

I’d be delighted to speak with you should this letter and the interim hi:project website [10] prompt your interest.

Kind regards,

Philip Sheldrake, CEng, on behalf of the hi:project.

Managing Partner, Euler Partners
Director, techUK
Analyst, Gigaom Research
UK Ambassador, The Network Society




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