Living in the age of data – whether big or small – certainly has its benefits for businesses and governments. Consumers, however, might be excused for feeling like they are being carried along without fully understanding what is happening to their information. Projects are already up and running to find the right formula to empower citizens without putting them at risk, but each has its own problems.
Companies can carry out detailed analyses of customer data to find new revenue streams while planners can look at how to reduce energy consumption in smart cities based on usage data.
But the individuals who generated the data in the first place are excluded from the equation when it is used. Several government schemes around the world – including the UK’s midata – are trying to change that. The aim is to empower consumers to take advantage of the wealth of data companies and governments harness about them by giving them access to it too. But feedback from early attempts to do this indicates that it might not be an easy endeavour.
Blue and Green buttons in the US
In 2011, the US government established the Smart Disclosure programme which is driving the release of both public and private sector data in a standardised, machine readable format. According to president Barack Obama, this will help the public make better choices about all sorts of services such as healthcare, finance and energy.
One of the projects underway as part of Smart Disclosure is Green Button. This is an initiative that allows customers to download their personal energy data in a standard, electronic and portable format. They can then use apps to help them manage their energy consumption, and, ultimately, lower their bills. Currently, 27 million households in seventeen US states have access to their own energy information.
American consumers can also click on the Blue Button, a public-private initiative to give patients access to their health data electronically. Through the Blue Button, users can start compiling their personal medical history, check if the information is correct and have it ready in case of emergency, or when switching health insurance companies. They can also plug their own health information into apps and tools to help them set personalised health goals.
The Blue Button, however, is where the problems with Smart Disclosure come to light. It has been suggested that the Blue Button is essentially useless because the formatting of the data is often unreadable. With this in mind, the government is revamping the system and plans to relaunch the Blue Button in 2014.
The Green Button has also been criticised, with some users being perplexed with the amount of personal data on offer and how to use it. Ted Eytan, a blogger from Washington, DC, writes that he was baffled by the number of apps on offer and found that many were unfinished and others didn’t work. He was also concerned that he had to provide information that he did not want to give just to review his energy data.
The success of the Blue and Green Button initiatives is crucial for the whole Smart Disclosure programme as many more initiatives are planned under it. For example, MyData aims to provide students with access to their education and financial aid data so that they can create a personal learning profile and use tools to generate learning recommendations based on their past performance and future goals.
Other planned programmes include both government data such as military training and experience records from the Department of Defense and historical financial history of citizens, such as earnings and income, from the Internal Revenue Service.
Thinking first in France
With its aim to “return of personal data to individuals,” France has also joined the UK and US in a similar initiative called Mesinfos.
Created by the FING think tank, the project is embarking on a year-long pilot phase to determine how individuals will use their personal data and how they can benefit from it. During the so called “experimentation period”, a range of different datasets from the private sector will be made available to testers to explore the opportunities for new applications and services.
During this pilot, Mesinfos will be looking at whether data transparency is worth the risks involved in sharing information in this way and what to do if “new opportunities for abuse emerge”. The plan is also to think about policy issues such as whether data handback should be mandatory and more fundamental questions like if individuals even want their data at all.
So far, they seem to. More than a million users have registered for the Blue Button to access and download their personal health data. There also seems to be interest from industry, with more than 30 utility and energy providers representing about a quarter of all US customers implementing or planning to implement the Green Button.
But it is ultimately consumers who will determine if such initiatives are going to be successful. Some users are wary of the privacy and security issues involved in initiatives such as midata in the UK, MesInfos in France and Smart Disclosure in the US. As one blogger puts it: “if disclosure is smart, not everything will be disclosed”.