Irene, on how little of our zetabytes of data is controlled by people who created it
Interview by Anna Maria Tremonti on Canadian national radio’s “The Current”
Guests: Alexandra Samuel, Irene Ng, Emily Laidlaw
Anna Maria Tremonti of CBC’s “The Current” interviewed Irene to talk about the activities and implications of the breaches in trust that landed Mark Zuckerberg in front of Congress. “As many as 87 million Facebook users may have had their personal data shared with Cambridge Analytica, spurring a chorus of voices calling for more regulation of the tech sector,” according to the segment. “The amount of data we are generating every day is staggering. It’s forecast…that by 2025 the global data sphere will grow to 163 zettabytes, ten times that which was generated in 2016. Right now very little of that data is controlled by people who created it.” Anna Maria Tremonti interviewed Irene to ask her what the Hub of All Things was, and how it would change the data landscape.
ANNA MARIE TREMONTI: Well the amount of data we are generating every day is staggering. It’s expected to grow. The marketing firm IDC forecasts that by 2025 the global data sphere will grow to 163 zettabytes, which I had to learn how to pronounce. In case you didn’t know that’s a trillion gigabytes — and I didn’t know — that is ten times more than what was generated in 2016. Right now very little of that data is controlled by people who created it. Irene Ng wants to change that, which is why she helped create what is called the Hub of All Things. It is an online ecosystem that allows people to control and store their own personal data, and to decide when and how they want to share it. Irene Ng is a professor at the University of Warwick and the co-founder and chair of the Hub of All Things Foundation. We have reached her in Cambridge, England. Hello.
IRENE NG: Hi. Good to be here.
AMT: Tell me more about the Hub of All Things. Tell me more about what it is.
IRENE NG: Right the Hub of All Things, which we call the HAT, is your personal micro-server. We tend to think about it in the same way as in 1976, when we had the personal computer. Then we had the personal smartphone. Well, in 2018 we have the personal micro-server, which is basically a data micro-server that follows you wherever you go with your phone. It sits in the cloud. But it allows you to pick different bits of your data with or without identity; it is up to you, to fill in forms or to exchange data. Because there’s just so much of our data out there, and we should be the ones to control it. And so we feel that in a centralised world it’s actually better, with the zettabytes you’re talking about, to decentralised, for me to be able to control. It’s easier.
AMT: So where is the data that’s going to be on our micro-servers coming from?
IRENE NG: The data comes from many different places. You could pull your Facebook data, or your Twitter data, because they’re precious memories too. You could also put your health records in there — you could put anything you want in there. It creates a little bit of an avatar of you but it belongs privately to you. It’s your micro-server. You can install tools, get great insights of your own life in it, and then ping whatever bits of data out whenever an app or a company wants it.
AMT: How would I share the data on my little mini server?
IRENE NG: So the little micro-server is up in the cloud, and you share it with what we call API access. We have a generic term on the HAT called a data debit. It’s like money. You have a direct debit from your bank account which you give every month because of bills. You have a data debit because you may give some bits of your data to the insurance company so that they can bill you. And it could be a rolling data debit or a one off data debit.
AMT: And it’s my choice what I let leave the HAT or what I keep under the HAT [laughs].
IRENE NG: That’s correct. Absolutely.
AMT: So if I’m sharing this with my data debit, what if I’m sharing it with somebody who’s on Facebook. That would be like, if you’re talking about money like debit, that would be like me tossing my money into the air and anybody could pick it up.
IRENE NG: That is true. So there are two levels of controls here. One if you want to go control it yourself in terms of all the data you’ve given to all the different apps that want it, you can do that. Or you have a HAT provider who might be your hospital or your bank, and they could set up certain rules like ‘I want the same preferences as my mom’, you know, more heuristic rules. And so there are different levels of data exposure you can entrust to an organisation you trust. Or you can do it all yourself.
AMT: And so would we be able to what, sell our own data to marketers?
IRENE NG: If you want to. We don’t tend to think that you probably want to do that. I mean if you ran a survey for example, somebody asked you to answer the question, what if the questions you wanted just stayed on your HAT so maybe you could just answer it again with another survey. You can re-use and re-share it. And it’s for the benefit you get in return, the great services you get in return. It might not be money. It probably shouldn’t be money. I mean that would be like selling a kidney right.
AMT: So why would companies want to get data from us this way as opposed to collecting it from companies?
IRENE NG: If you think of my HAT, I’ve already got all sorts of data in there. But in the world of zettabytes of Internet of Things where there is hairdryer data and your TV data. Truly Google or Facebook will never get that amount of data from you. But different companies might give you cooler services, because different combinations of data could give you better insights and recommendations. So being in control of that means you can actually get better services. And some of the companies that are partnering with HAT really want that because they can’t get the data otherwise, and even if they do it just seems unethical or creepy.
AMT: Sounds like I have to get somebody to manage my HAT. Sounds like a lot of work.
IRENE NG: Not really, because we think about it as a transition thing — like the way you started with your phone. So if you remember we used to have a phone that did nothing except let you talk through it. And slowly we learned how to manage a phone, and we got smartphones because it did awesome things for us. So everything is down to the awesome services you can get for data rather than how much effort you have to put it.
AMT: So you’ve already set this up . You’re using it?
IRENE NG: Yes there are about a thousand people using it. I think Canada is having a HAT provider in September for your health records called Bear Health Technologies in Toronto. There are HAT providers all over the world. They are slowly rolling out over summer. And yes if you go to HubofallThings.com you can get a HAT.
AMT: [Laughs] I’m sorry. We keep calling it the HAT. And I’ve got this image in my head.
AMT: So do you see this replacing or eliminating the collection and storage of our personal data by private companies?
IRENE NG: No. I see this as an alternative power system, and I think one of the speakers talked about power. I think about decentralisation distributing power back to individuals to have more say and power on the Internet because they have their own micro-server, not just little fingers and mice that can just tap on screen. When you have your own micro-server and you decide to tell your micro-server what to do on the Internet, you distribute the power out and you create a sort of pluralistic system. There will still be companies that will want to hoard your data and you may allow them to do that because they do that aggregation across millions of people that give you better insight. But I think having these two systems working together is healthier for the Internet rather than just have one type of centralised system.
AMT: Okay well thanks for explaining it to us. Really interesting. Thank you.
IRENE NG: Thank you very much.
AMT: That’s Irene Ng, she’s a professor at the University of Warwick. She’s co-founder of the Hub of All Things Foundation and she calls it HAT. She is in Cambridge, England. Let us know what you think of what she’s talking about and if that’s a solution in your mind to controlling more of your own data. Tweet us @TheCurrentCBC. Find us on Facebook — I guess. Find us on Facebook or go to our website cbc.ca/thecurrent. And yes it’s true when you search that it will be kept into perpetuity not by us. Stay with us. Right after the break we’re talking to the former chair of the Toronto Police Services Board who’s calling for police reform on lots of things including crossing guards. This is The Current.
Read more from Anna Maria Tremonti’s reporting on What the ‘inevitable’ regulation of Facebook should look like at CBC Radio, or learn more about the Hub of All Things at www.hubofallthings.com.
Prof. Irene Ng is a research academic, entrepreneur, engineer, educator, and advisor. She is the Professor of Marketing and Service Systems at WMG, University of Warwick for 80% of her time, and 20% of her time is spent as the Chairman of HATDeX and serving as an advisor to various organisations and governments. She is the microeconomics engineer and Chief Economist of the HAT platform, a personal data market for person-controlled personal data.