The business case for a User Data Commons

When I was with Robin Good in Rome last week, one of the items we discussed was Data Portability, and his certainty that it was inevitable. It made me think that one of the key principles of the peer to peer economy will be that value will not be derived from proprietary intellectual property, but from the commons, through the triad of cooperation we have already discussed before: i.e. we would have a 1) commons of user-creators self-aggregating their productive assets and practicing peer production and governance, a 2) for-benefit institution that manages the infrastructure of cooperation (usually a non-profit), and a 3) ecology of businesses creating added value derived from that commons).

But creating or maintaining a commons goes against the interest of existing and dominant market players, who capture value by maintaining assets closed and under their own control. What may be a useful strategy for private gain, is however often a loss for the sector, the economy, and the public interest as a whole, as it precludes the creation of a much larger commons, which inherently superior potential for value creation. Witness the situation in the health sector and this stunning fact quoted in a review of a new Health Commons report:

‘”Only six out of the 1800 biotechnology companies funded since 1980 have made more money than was cumulatively invested in them.”

That makes it very hard to argue that privatising bio-genetic information has been a good move, if only on economic grounds (for the arguments against the current pharma regime, see here).

Imagine the value that could have been created through an open commons of biological data, apart from the speed of innovation that it would have contributed to.

So businesses need a little convincing, and this is a job taking up by Marshall Kirkpatrick, in a useful article geared to business audiences, attempting to show them why data portability, based on the principle of data neutrality and user ownership of the data:

In the long term, it’s in everyone’s best interests for data to be as portable as possible. For users, data portability means that we can invest time and resources into new platforms on the web without the fear that the work we create will be locked in to that network or otherwise lost to us. It also offers the possibility that we can take our compiled work in one place and let another service process that data to create new kinds of value for our benefit. For example, being able to export our reading history from one service would enable other services to immediately recommend new experiences they can offer based on our tastes elsewhere. The music website Idiomag, for example, can look at our public history on and build from that history a customized music “magazine” about artists we would likely enjoy. That’s just one kind of service that could be enabled for users by data portability.

Most importantly for the purposes of this post, vendors too have an interest in data portability. Allowing your users to port their data elsewhere means that you’ll be able to import their data from other platforms enabling export as well. When your users take their history with you to another site, they will be able to make faster, better friends and content connections in that new place, which should lead to their having a better developed social network to bring back to your site.

If you can add value to user data, and thus help grow the aggregate information economy, then there should be far more information for you to monetize (advertise against) than you could keep within your grasp alone. Add value, let it go and focus on offering a compelling enough user experience that users will bring their data back to you, freshly grown from their experiences in other environments. Everybody wins.”

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