New Infrastructure: A Way Forward for Digital Fiduciaries and Data Empowerment

Richard Whitt
The Startup
Published in
11 min readDec 17, 2020


Todd Kelsey and Richard Whitt

This article is seventh in a series that explores the many individual and societal implications of how data is handled in the era of Covid. The series has introduced new approaches for protecting human agency and autonomy, including various forms of digital mediaries (such as digital fiduciaries and data trusts), and personal AIs. This culminating article proposes some actual projects. We are seeking input and partnership from any person, organization or company that may be interested in assisting. For further context you are invited to check out the series.

PROBLEM: Fidtech — the Missing Sector

Throughout the article series we have learned about the Web’s current massive asymmetries and imbalance, where the power and control of all forms of data is controlled largely by corporations and governments. In short, our data is taken into vast non-transparent databases over which we have no control, and where we have little recourse. In that setting the growing power of artificial intelligence is used to generate increasing wealth. In the articles, we’ve looked at SEAM feedback cycles (surveillance > extraction > analysis > manipulation), which have become the default operating system for the Web for too many of us. As a society, we can choose to passively accept this accelerating trend, with a significant lack of visibility into the true value of our data and a lack of control over how the data is used. Or we can seek to hold companies accountable, and gain more autonomy in our digital lives, by seeking to establish the same principles of fiduciary care and loyalty that guide the actions of trustworthy societal actors like doctors and lawyers.

To summarize, there is currently no meaningful advocate who can act on our behalf with regards to our digital selves, no affirmative way to balance out the great power of institutional AIs, a power based primarily on the presumed value of our data. In this article series, we explored how we could have such trusted advocates.

To clarify and highlight the problem, we can consider the reality that we not only have a missing advocate, we also have a missing sector: what could be called the “FidTech” sector. This would be the collection of companies and organizations that would be necessary to offer protection and mediating support based on fiduciary principles, in balance to the increasingly power of institutional AI.

And nowhere is this more clearly seen than in the disparity of funding and resources. For example, if we just take a single sector where investment is increasing, Fintech, we can see the disparity.

The Scale of Need (for an Alliance of Digital Fiduciaries)

. . . proportional comparison for insight on how to set into motion

Exhibit #1: MarTech

(AI/resources deployed on behalf of institutions)

= 5,000+ companies, rapid expansion


Exhibit# 2: Fiduciary Tech

(AI/resources deployed on behalf of users, based on fiduciary principles)

= 1+ organization?

Conclusion: an alliance is urgently needed.

Funding Snapshot: Fintech and Fidtech (FiduciaryTech)

Consider Q1 2020 . . .

Fintech = 5.8 billion

Fidtech = $1,000.00

Conclusion: if we are to make headway in serving the public interest through development of the digital fiduciary sector, sustainable funding is needed: investment of time, human capital and financial resources, to strengthen and create both non-profit and for-profit initiatives.

NEED: A Path Forward to Digital Mediaries and Data Empowerment

As we consider how to take the principles of this article series and put them in motion, we see a need to take the following actions:

- clarify and develop pertinent governance principles for fiduciary technology

- empower people in the area of data fluency to help them understand the implications of how data is currently handled, and the increasing role of data in our society; both as an opportunity for careers and employment in the new “data economy”, as well as a personal universal skill set, to empower Web users with greater autonomy on their own terms

- help policymakers to tackle the complexities and challenges in the rapidly expanding data economy, to help strike a sustainable balance between the needs of people, corporations and governments, towards the common goal of rebuilding trust and having a sustainable and just economy

- empower companies and organizations with the opportunity to integrate fiduciary principles in their core technology and processes.

- provide digital advocacy in the creation of new companies, both in more traditional molds, as well as exploring new business models, to help provide sustainable employment, and find ways to get grassroots insight and inclusive participation in the development of the sector

Based on these high-level considerations, the following section suggests a way to achieve these ends.

SOLUTION: Create an Alliance to Develop a Fidtech Sector

These ideas and structures are meant to offer representative possibilities, and could involve the creation of projects, as well as new mediating companies or organizations, and partnerships with existing entities.

Representative Principles and Approaches:

- To some extent, the list reflects the idea of seeking anchors to help develop a sector

- Originality: the spirit is to bring some ideas to the table, but to assume and welcome partnership and also to embrace serendipity, and not necessarily try to re-invent a wheel when an entire fleet is needed.

- One possible model: hybrid for-profit/non-profit entity

Data Innovation Lab empowering a new technology ecosystem

Two-fold goal: develop open source prototypes in collaboration with other entities, and work towards exploring a company structure to provide these services as an independent entity or joint venture.

Trusted Digital Agent: Integrate fiduciary principles into an open, transparent platform and marketplace that can provide both direct services through an interface as well as mediated services. Example use cases and a roadmap for features include the PEP stages discussed in the article series (Protect > Enhance > Promote). Under that approach, an initial tier of service might be provided at a browser level to help protect and manage data, and verify the trustworthiness of AI and data practices for users. Additional features and services then could be built and validated based on grassroots insight, including development of additional services to promote and enhance users’ best interests. Ideally these offerings would be developed in tandem with Personal AI.

Personal AI: The power of AI should be deployed on behalf of individuals, as a balance to Institutional AI. As the technology is defined, it may include layers of analysis and protection to advise users, based on an open transparent foundation, which could be situated in a non-profit, for profit or both. It may leverage advances developed by existing companies large or small, but be organized and situated to be directly accountable to users. Options include serving individuals, and developing local pilots to provide a vehicle for aligning the services with local priorities vs “proclaimed” priorities. The development and direction of the technology should be highly diverse and inclusive, in tandem with empowering new expertise in previously underserved communities and populations; and strike a balance between the strength and economic sustainability of a conventional corporation and the provision of local and distributed presence, to help spread the availability of related employment.

An example of how personal AI could be developed on a distributed basis includes the possibility of developing local data processing resources, which some research indicates can be competitive with centralized data centers in leveraging GPU and other AI processing power. Such resources may be deployed in fog computing networks and provide a potential source of income, but may also importantly provide AI resources that are tied directly to a given community and directly under that community’s control. Similarly, personal AI may be a layer of resources to help empower digital trusted agents; but may also have emerging opportunities to help provide services that entrepreneurs can develop in the future.

Data Handling in Applied Quantum Computing: Some view quantum computing as “5–10 years in the distance”; yet the field is expanding rapidly and has implications for any venture in AI and data handling. Companies such as D-Wave are already offering applied quantum computing products, which have been leveraged in business contexts such as optimizing supply chains and in pharmaceutical research. This direction of Data Handling is meant to highlight the need for researching the impact and opportunity in quantum computing as early as possible: for example: quantum computing may vastly expand the potential sophistication of trusted digital agents and personal AI mentioned above, yet quantum computing does have unique approaches that go beyond simply providing more processing power. We believe that we need to be intentional about pursuing the development of quantum computing in the interests of users, and an implicit reality is that as institutions begin to leverage quantum computing, it is likely to increase the already vast asymmetry in AI power — so there is a need to follow it closely and to further prototypes and applications of how quantum computing may impact people and how it could be deployed to serve their best interests.

Creative Studios empowering users

The general theme in this area is educational and creative content, but also involves the creation of some new tools, platforms and partnerships.

Data Archaeology: Data archaeology is discussed in Article 6, and reflects the ubiquitous reality of families amassing increasing amounts of digital artifacts. Part of empowering users to have more control of their data could involve helping people to gather and preserve these digital artifacts, including tools to rescue these artifacts from obsolete formats (ex: the old disk in a box that may have something precious — multiplied by all the devices and formats that are slipping into oblivion). Another natural service in this area could be to help people gather their artifacts and then to help curate them, and similar to some items mentioned above; there are opportunities to provide both a direct service, but also to explore empowering “facilitators” to provide a service locally and thus support employment. One target network of pilot locations might naturally involve libraries, for example, who are often involved in supporting communities including in the area of digital preservation.

Business models are likely to include a set of open source tools and free materials, as well as a company framework for economic growth and sustainability. Ultimately part of the idea is to support the universal phenomena of family heritage and establish a relationship on that basis; and then have the opportunity to offer related opportunities, such as resources to help people consider developing a more sophisticated and fuller online identity (expressed as a “virtual portrait” in the context of digital lifestreams in Article 6). But the platform itself may provide one way to help expose greater numbers of people to the idea of trusted digital agents or personal AI, where the first step in their “data journey” might be to explore the data that may be most meaningful to them: their digital artifacts.

Data Fluency: Data fluency is needed at every level of the projects and ideas contained in this article, and is seen as primarily a matter of education, both pointing people to existing resources and developing new ones, and adapting them, translating and localizing for new audiences, to help empower grassroots communities. The assumption is that this might be developed in a non-profit/educational setting, but it may be possible to also offer in the context of paid and facilitated training. The topics might include conventional data skills, yet also introduce the importance of ethical considerations and the implications of themes discussed in the article series.

Data Continuity: Part of the core considerations in empowering people in regards to their data is not just claiming or managing their data, but also protecting and preserving it into the future. Accordingly, part of the need for digital preservation is in exploring the fundamentals of how to ensure data continuity going into the future, including thought by pioneers such as Vint Cerf about the concept of “digital vellum”. Another related aspect which has to be a core consideration in any data venture is security.

Public Policy empowering citizens

To a certain extent we see the article series pointing to the need for essential new infrastructure as part of the foundation for a sustainable data economy. Among the most critical needs are for tools to redress essential imbalance in the way resources are deployed and to help rebuild trust. And only substantial involvement of all relevant stakeholders will result in new fiduciary data infrastructure: Web users, corporations, organizations, governments.

Digital Fiduciaries: This concept is central in the article series, and is another way to say “trusted digital agent”, but is situated here to highlight the importance of tying it to ongoing public policy discussions around data and privacy. For example, a certification regime could be developed independently in the public trust; however, it could also be a basis for codifying some of the principles into law, to help advance society and protect people, resulting from open discussion and diplomacy between all stakeholders.

A digital fiduciary certification might begin with principles that can be adopted, and ultimately companies and individuals could be empowered to gain a certification signifying that they are trusted entities in terms of data and fiduciary principles. This could go a long way in helping to re-establish trust between individuals and corporations, and provide a way for each stakeholder to go forward. The model might be a combination of a non-profit basis in the public trust, as well as empowering existing and new consultancies to help companies evaluate and pursue this opportunity.

Accordingly, some kind of public policy unit/alliance is an important area to consider, including the resources to help propose and support the process of having wider impact on society through introduction and development of digital fiduciary principles.

D-Corp: This governance vehicle is a new concept under development, open to discussion, to consider creating a new form of business corporation that would embody and be subject to digital fiduciary principles.

Data Trusts: a data trust may be a good vehicle for asserting collective agency. The concept involves creating a community or drawing together a geographically dispersed group of people to pool their data and protect it in some way, applying governance principles, and situating the trust in a corporate or non-profit structure of some kind. Data trusts could be thought of as a tool for storing and managing data, and could work in tandem with digital fiduciaries. It is an emerging field of research and prototyping, and could be an important part of a Fidtech sector.

Accountability: Theory of Change

Theory of Change is a planning and issue-framing tool that we’d like to explore using for monitoring and evaluating the ongoing impact of efforts to develop a Fidtech sector. “ToC” can be an effective tool to help identify specific goals and tie the goals to particular interventions, and then data can be collected to evaluate progress towards the stated goals. ToC can be used in conjunction with non-profit and public policy projects, but also in general as a tool for measuring outcomes. Along with effective management and best practices, we think that Theory of Change can help ensure maximum impact.


We appreciate you taking the time to review this article, and we’re interested in hearing from those willing to get involved in some way. There is a critical need for investment of every kind, including financial and human capital, as well as simply investing time: a most precious resource. (It’s also important to note that you don’t necessarily need to be an investor or someone with technical experience — we also value life experience and perspective.)

In short, we’d be glad to hear from any individual or entity, small or large, and we look forward to partnering with people, organizations and companies to explore how we can form an alliance to create a Fidtech sector.

Feel free to connect on LinkedIn, and then to email us your thoughts. Thanks again for your investment of time to read this article, and others in the series.



Richard Whitt
The Startup

Richard is a former Googler with a passion for making the open Web a more trustworthy and accountable place for human beings.