Follow the Data

A data driven blog

Data citizens

To follow up the Nordic theme after my post about Swedish big data companies, I’d like to try to summarize a nascent Finnish blogosphere discussion about the concept of “data citizens.” These would be a kind of test group of people who would voluntarily give up personal data about themselves to find out what they could gain from a global “data view” of themselves. As Tuija Aalto puts it, “what kind of snapshot of one’s own life could a citizen form based on available data?” Further down in the comments to the same blog post, she talks about how last.fm, when it came out, gave her an enhanced sense of what kind of music she liked (even though her friends wondered if she didn’t know her own taste in music anyway), and asks if it’s possible to similarly learn previously unrealized things about your own health, financial situation etc. based on data aggregation. To find out some answers to that kind of question, volunteers are needed.

There’s at least a couple of such volunteers. Harri Juntunen notes that although he’s a Finnish citizen, there are loads of data about him deposited in U.S. net-based services. Does that matter for him? And why doesn’t Finland just adopt Google Health, which is a finished commercial product, and let people keep their Finnish health data there, instead of eternally debating possible healthcare reforms?

Juntunen feels that the individual citizen tends to get left out of the open data discussion. From a citizen’s viewpoint, municipalities, states and commercial actors generate relevant data; the paradox is that companies and authorities discuss with each other about things that should really generate services for citizens. Juntunen asks, “What could I accomplish if I was able to view myself easily as pure data?

This question gave him the idea of data citizens, a group of voluntary “data donors” whose data would be used to perform free-form experiments. If it turns out to be a complete failure, we will at least have learned a lot and would be able to use those experiences in the future. Juntunen’s concrete example concerns library borrowing history. What if you could find out your entire borrowing history for the last few decades, as well as the aggregated borrowing history for the whole country to identify literary trends? These scenarios aren’t possible yet because no one seems to be able to decide whether this information can be made public.The data citizens would be made up of a limited but diverse group of people with whose data rapid experiments could be performed and results could be assessed. Their data would be used to concretize benefits and consequences of open data.

Arttu Silvast writes that (like Juntunen) he has found that open-data initiatives often lack a citizen’s viewpoint and that he would like to find out what kind of data there exists about him and, most importantly, how he can benefit from aggregating these data. He has some concrete examples of simple information that would be useful to have, for instance what vaccinations you’ve had and when they have to be renewed. Another slightly more intricate example would be to compare your own eating habits with other people in the same age bracket and life situation. Why does Silvast volunteer to give up data about himself? “I want to know, what sort of information about me spreads where when I do X or Y. I’d also like bump into situations where I suddenly realize how useful open data would be to me, and by extension, to other people.

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