Privacy AND openness fosters collective intelligence and accountability

Matatus in Nairobi Kenya
Data, information and knowledge may be described as open if anyone can freely access, use, modify, and share it for any purpose – subject, at most, to requirements that preserve provenance and openness. We apply an open license to all the stuff we create and publish on this website (see the Creative Commons reference in the footer).

You might describe privacy in personal data terms as having control over who has access to what data and for what purpose. Obviously some data needs to be shared with a service provider in the very provision of the service in question, and such terms should be communicated unambiguously. Additionally, the definition of what constitutes personal data is typically broader than many perceive. It includes meta data for example – that is data about data, eg, your location when you made a mobile phone call.

The hi:project is recognised for addressing challenges associated with personal data and privacy (amongst other things) and in banging that particular drum we find that quite a few people confuse privacy and openness as opposites. They are not. Actually, they are entirely compatible and in its letter of endorsement for the hi:project the Web Science Trust identifies our dedication to propagating openness as well as our focus on privacy.

Privacy and openness hand in hand

How do we square privacy and openness when the first appears to lock things down and the second aspires to set stuff free? The answer boils down to context and identity. Consider this statement:

Your household used 840 kilowatt hours of electricity last month.

You know your utility company has access to this personal data. It has declared it collects this data for the purposes of communication to you and for calculating the corresponding bill. It has also declared that it does not use this data in any other way that can be traced to your identity – it will feature in their aggregate calculations for transmission losses for example. It has also declared that it is not deriving any additional personal data or information from its metering. (Did you know it might identify the household appliances you have and their use and perhaps then the number of people living at the property and their daily routines?)

But is this 840 kilowatt hours data useful to you? Do you feel like you’ve gained any insight? Will you be taking any action? Hmm.

We could lend this data more meaning:

This is the lowest amount looking back at the same month over four years and 55 kilowatt hours less than the average for the previous three years.

Now that’s more interesting. Must be that new immersion heater.

Your privacy is maintained – only your utility company knows your energy use for straightforward commercial reason. But what if you could learn more?..

A third of similar properties with similar occupancy in your area used less electricity … two thirds used more.

Feeling good about your energy efficiency? Want to find out what the other third might have done to save even more on their energy bills?

We can deduce such context and maintain privacy if there is a way to pool your energy data anonymously with your neighbours. You will have published open data, privately. You will have helped everyone and yourself translate data into useful information.

Privacy and openness in your hands

The hi:project’s submission to the UN’s Data Revolution Group asserts: “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.”

The open data community prioritises its attention today, quite logically, on repositories of closed data. The UK for example is a global leader in opening up government data, in no small part thanks to the work of the Open Data Institute.

The hi:project plays a complementary role. We’re intent on empowering each of us individually and all of us collectively with a more human web, part of which entails improving our control over our own data, such control improving privacy and openness. To continue our household electricity example, we could invite each utility in turn to publish its data openly, and we could equip householders to do the same. With the hi:project protecting privacy and enabling openness, each householder will find the balance that suits them, quite probably leading to pooling sufficient to lend any analyses statistical significance.

In the same letter of endorsement, the Web Science Trust recognises that the hi:project enables anyone to contribute data to its Web Observatory, core to the Trust’s mission to help everyone better understand the Web.

Such citizen-centric facility is essential when a corporate or indeed a government doesn’t want to play ball. Imagine a nationalised transport system in a data vacuum – the government refuses to reveal anything about its performance. However, citizens use the transport system and, equipped with hi:project-type capability, they can learn about their own movements and pool data. This may facilitate analyses to contribute to the improvement of the transport system, and represents a new mechanism by which citizens might hold their government, indeed any organization, to account.


If this vista appeals, here are some ideas for what to do now:


Image source: Matatus in Nairobi Kenya, Darren and Sandy Van Soye, BY-NC-SA.

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