Why I’m closing the Whose Data project

Samantha Burton
Jan 13 · 4 min read
Photo by Nathaniel dahan on Unsplash

Around this time last year, I started a project called Whose Data: an open source initiative that aimed to make it easier for Canadians to answer key questions about who owns — and what options we have to control — data collected about us.

Today, I’m closing it down.

This isn’t a failure.

I started Whose Data because I wanted to participate more fully in debates about initiatives like Sidewalk Toronto and ShotSpotter, which collect and use personal data to influence my community and my own life.

To do this, I felt like I needed to better understand who owns and controls data about me right now, and to connect with others who are exploring similar questions.

Those were my goals when I started Whose Data, and the project exceeded my expectations.

I participated in Mozilla’s Open Leaders program, and learned a ton about working open, using GitHub, and building a community around a project. I was delighted by the interest the idea generated and by how people jumped in to help — including my mentor Felipe, ghulamusman my first contributor (!), and sogen, Daina, Abby who so generously offered their expertise on everything from logo design to supporting an open source community.

I was surprised, puzzled, and intrigued by what the research revealed. Before this project, I didn’t know that I own my medical information but not the physical record, or that I legally have the right to request any video footage take of me on public or private property.

I connected and collaborated with many incredible people thinking about and tackling similar challenges, in Toronto and elsewhere.

So if it’s meeting my goals, why close the project?

Two realizations led me to this decision:

My most pressing questions have evolved.

In September, I was invited to share Whose Data with the Civic Tech Toronto community. It was an excellent group and our conversation wound itself into the late hours of the evening. The energy we created and questions we discussed with stuck with me long after.

One of the questions I couldn’t shake was: does data ownership matter?

I’d actually raised this question during my talk. I answered it too.

I said: data ownership without control is meaningless.

Photo Credit: Emily Macrae

Now that I’ve chewed on this for longer, I’m convinced not only that this is true, but also that it’s where the rubber really hits the road.

The questions I now feel are most pressing are: What does it look like for individuals to have meaningful control over our data and what it’s used for? How can we build that world?

I still think that the questions Whose Data was built on, questions designed to help us get a better grasp of the current lay-of-the-land, are critical for this work. But I also think that the design of the Whose Data project limits the way it can contribute to tackling the questions I now feel are most important — it’s not set up to illuminate paths forward.

I could choose to evolve Whose Data to tackle different questions. But I’ve decided not to, because of my second realization.

To do more things with excellence, I need to do fewer things.

Taking this project to its full potential would require a huge amount of time and energy. I’m the kind of person who is excited by a huge range of ideas and opportunities. I want to do all the things, and do them well. Often, I genuinely think I can.

But that’s not true. In the past year, I’ve felt myself stretched thin. The truth is that I was involved in too many things to do any of them with excellence. So, I need to let some of them go. I’ve decided that Whose Data is one of those things.

This means that Whose Data won’t be updated from this point forward, and the website will be shut down. The GitHub repo will stay up though.

I plan to continue to follow the great work others are leading about what meaningful data control looks like for Canadians, folks like Teresa Scassa talking about legal implications, Bianca Wylie and Sean McDonald exploring alternatives like data trusts, and Nasma Ahmed bringing our attention to the implications these decisions have on justice.

I’m so grateful that I started Whose Data. I have immense appreciation for all the people who supported the project, as well as everyone it helped me meet and learn from.

I’m not leaving this space behind, I’m creating room to discover what my future here looks like.

Thank you, and see you around!

    Samantha Burton

    Written by

    the technical is political | Director of Insights @mozilla | she/her | views my own