Today I want to write about how as we begin to share more of our data, I believe we can be empowered to do more of what matters to us. More sharing means more empowerment.
Let me explain what I mean.
The more we connect and share with those we trust, the more we can learn about ourselves and each other, and indeed about our wider communities. And the more we learn, the more we are likely to understand, and the better we are able to tell stories – about ourselves, about each other and about the world around us. All of this means we can make informed decisions.
When sharing gets smart
Let’s take smart meters as an example. These are the devices you can connect to your energy meter to send detailed records of your energy use back to your energy supplier (the UK government wants to have these rolled out to every home in the UK by 2019). By receiving real-time meter readings your energy supplier will be able to send you a much more accurate bill. At the same time, the energy company will be able to aggregate real usage across a wider group and be able to better manage supply and demand. In theory this means they’ll be able to improve energy pricing, which should be a win for everyone: a better service at a lower cost, and better margins for the supplier.
Now, what if you could share that information with another organisation that was working on your behalf? This other company could help you understand even more about your energy use, help you change your behaviours or indeed save money and become greener if that’s what matters to you. Based on your actual usage they could help you to find out which supplier can give you the best deal, or even give your whole street the best deal. By sharing your energy data with other people or groups you trust, you are able to learn and understand more and be able to tell a better story; a story about you, or indeed your street. This means you’ll be able to make better decisions – in this case you’d be able to make an informed decision about which energy supplier to use rather than trying to navigate the confusopoly that exists today.
Happily, such helpful organisations are beginning to emerge. A great example is called billmonitor. These clever clogs ask you to share your mobile phone bill with them so they can analyse it; they compare your last few months’ mobile use to the open market of mobile phone deals out there and then suggest the the contract/ company for you to get the best deal. They believe that 76% of people in the UK are on the wrong mobile phone contract, paying too much money and getting too little value. They believe that they can save the average person almost £200 a year. What a great idea.
The point is that it shouldn’t just be your energy data that you should be able to share, but all the types of data you create. I suspect ‘billmonitor’ have used that brand name exactly because it’s generic; this is a repeatable model which should work across other utilities, perhaps even other industries like your grocery shopping and banking. And it would all be volunteered by you – not automatically scraped and harvested by others without your permission.
A virtuous circle
So, back to this idea of sharing.
I believe that as I understand more, I can better tell the story, and that’s when I am able to make better decisions e.g. about what to buy, what price to pay, what behaviour to change and how. Such decisions mean I can become empowered to save time, effort and money, which frees me up to focus on what matters – to spend that time, effort and money on what I believe. The thing is, the more focus on what I believe, the more I am able to listen to what matters. And as we listen, we’ll learn more, and therefore understand more. And so on and so on, round and round. I think that it fits together as a virtuous circle – it would look something like this:
This all happens – and is reinforced – when we connect and share with those we trust.
Let’s take an example: patientslikeme. The more health data that patients share about themselves, the more the group learns and understands more about each other, and about the group generally. And the more they understand, the better a story they can tell about the individual or group as a whole. They can begin to see trends and opportunities which help them make better decisions: the patient can make informed decisions with her doctor about her medication or her fitness routine based on group feedback; the group can exercise their buying power – perhaps to lobby to lower the price of a drug, or to show that there’s money on the table for a drug that’s not yet been brought to market; the group can also share aggregated results with the medical research community, who in turn can help improve the very medical science which will help improve the lives of the group.
When these individuals are enabled to connect and share with those they trust, they can make better decisions and in turn are freed up to focus on what they believe. In this context, making informed decisions means helping people get better and live longer in less pain. And as they do this, they can listen to, or perhaps simply pay attention to what matters – their family, sport, their hobbies, their career or whatever, because we’re all different.
The bigger picture
I think this virtuous circle applies everywhere, including business. The more companies listen to their customers – what they want, how, when and why – the more they’ll learn and understand about what to sell, how and when. And the more they understand, the better they can tell the customer’s story – about why they are in business to serve customers. And the better the story about why the company exists, and why people do business with them, and what their customers believe.
As these stories are told, the better business decisions they’ll make, both tactical and strategic. And if they make better business decisions, this will give them the business oxygen – increased revenue, cash-flow, profit, shareholder confidence, attraction and retention of talent – to focus on what matters; the customer. Once again, it looks something like this:
I believe that if we are given the opportunity to connect and share with those we trust, we’ll get better at listening, at learning, at understanding and telling the story.
This means we’ll make better decisions, and ultimately be able to focus on what matters. And it doesn’t matter if you’re a patient like me or an organisation, the point is the same: the more we share with those we trust, the more we can be empowered to do what we believe.
Over the last few months I’ve read some great books that have helped frame my thinking about how and why people produce, connect, share and learn. And so I want to start posting some of the main points and what I’ve learned from them. Here is the first of these posts: it’s on the excellent Cognitive Surplus by Clay Shirky.
The book begins by pointing out that if you look back in history, one of the bargains of the industrial revolution was to give workers the right to eight hours for work, eight for sleep and eight for themselves. This provided much more ‘spare time’ than had previously been known by workers. And over the last few years there has since been a major shift in the type of work being done around the world; increasingly many people are paid to think or talk, rather than to make things or move them around. This change in work has further enabled us to have more time available for our own purposes. Together, these shifts mean that we now have more free time than we’ve ever had; we are moving on from a post-war work environment. And insightful as ever, Shirky suggests that it’s been broadcast media that has soaked up much of this new-found free time – the key culprit being the TV sitcom. The point he makes is that today we don’t see enough of the value of this free time; so many of us fill it rather than use it.
Now, as access to the internet has spread we have become connected to each other in ways never imagined – we can now produce, learn, connect, share, and shop (and pretty much everything else you can think of) online. This connectedness has freed us from simply consuming content to being able to participate and contribute to it inlarger groups. Shirky’s Cognitive Surplus is about how and why we can (and perhaps should) put to better use our collective, accumulated free time by connecting and participating in new ways for the public good.
We are becoming one and another’s infrastructure
As a group becomes larger, the chances of human events will change. Things which were previously unlikely can become likely. For example, in the middle of a big city it’s quite possible that at any one time, someone will want to buy a slice of pizza. As a result, pizza companies can afford to make pizzas in advance and sell them by the slice, confident that there will be demand for them. On the other hand, in a rural village the demand for pizza slices is very low. The result there is that pizza companies only make whole pizzas when they are ordered.
This tiny but important example highlights the vast range and volume of individual needs which can only emerge as a crowd grows. And in larger crowds it’s more likely that someone somewhere in the group will be able to meet those needs. The internet of course enables us to form much larger, diverse crowds like never before. So we can increasingly rely on a wider group of people – both online and offline – to meet our various needs. To bring this to life, just think that only 20 years ago, footage and personal accounts of war were only really captured, edited and published by dedicated people in the field – aid workers, the government and the media. Today, we can see and hear often real-time updates from those who are on the ground, living it minute by minute. With their mobile phones and computers they can share with millions what’s going on around them as it happens. We are becoming each other’s infrastructure.
The rise of the non-professional
There’s an important point to be made about this new infrastructure: the quality of outputs only needs to be ‘good enough’ – we don’t always need the polish and presentation that professionals provide. The age-old idea that we should ‘leave the brain surgery to the brain surgeons’ is beginning to unravel a little. The book points out two problems with this concept. Firstly, we can’t assume a professional is better in every context. Quite rightly Shirky says that he can’t sing happy birthday to his children better than Placido Domingo, but there are times “when doing things badly, with and for one another beats having them done well by a professional”. Indeed, I’m as likely – perhaps more likely – to be influenced by a friend’s restaurant review than one from Time Out; this is partly because it’s personalised and we have a relationship (something the social networks are beginning to understand) but also because often the content is more important than the form. My view is that there’s an underlying requirement for trust in these environments; trust of sources, trust of data. More on this shortly (you can find some of my other thoughts on trust in an earlier post).
Secondly, he says that we need to separate the need for experience of something from the need for knowledge of it. I’d want only a qualified brain surgeon to operate on me, but there will be countless others who can tell me how the brain works and about its constituent parts – and depending on what I needed, they could be of help to me in different ways; the point is that it all depends on the context. (For those interested, there’s a lot more on the ‘knowledge of experience’, often called ‘tacit knowledge’ in the Power of Pull; and a bonus link – JP Rangaswami’s recent thoughts on Doing by learning)
Case in point: the brilliant organisation patientslikeme highlights how crowd-sourced information can be better (faster, more accurate, more instructive, and more relevant) than that supplied by a ‘professional’ organisation. My own view here is that this rise of the amateur, or non-professional, reflects a related shift in the technologies we use to share things (moving from broadcast to participatory) and how we behave in the workplace (changing from worker to contributor).
We need to understand why – not just what and how we do things
I think that one of Shirky’s greatest insights is that “behaviour is a motivation that’s been filtered through opportunity”. The book shows that in order to understand the behaviours around our Cognitive Surplus, like a detective understanding a crime, we must look at means, opportunity and motive.
In the context of the Cognitive Surplus, Shirky explains that the means are the systems, tools or platforms that allow us to connect, share and learn (like Skype, LinkedIn or YouTube). The opportunity is the combination of the time, place and people which enable us to take action. And he outlines the science which shows that there are two types of motive:
- Intrinsic motivations, which Shirky summarises as a need for 1) increased competence, 2) autonomy over what we do, 3) membership of a group who share our values and beliefs, 4) the sharing of things with that group; and
- Extrinsic motivations, like reward and recognition or punishment for certain behaviours.
When we were only given the opportunity to consume broadcast media, that’s exactly what we did. (As Jerry Michalski once put it, for a long time we have been treated as “gullets with wallets and eyeballs”.) Then along came the internet and we were given the opportunity to produce, contribute, study, collaborate, participate, have conversations and exchange value in ways – and at scales – that had not previously been possible. And we took up that opportunity with gusto. You see, it’s been the opportunity that’s changed, not our interest – or motivations – to connect, share and learn.
(As an aside, this logic helps us diagnose complex events in society like the UK’s 2011 riots. Many pointed the finger at new technologies like social networks and gang culture, but framing it differently would see that these apparently new behaviours are actually the combined result of the motive (initial reactions to the shooting of a man in North London, wider social issues including community relationships with the police), means (crowd used Blackberry Messenger and Twitter to coordinate) and opportunity (the forming of crowds on the streets after a peaceful protest in Tottenham, and a delayed response from the police.)
Relationships make all the difference
One of the book’s most important points for me is Shirky’s explanation of the importance of relationships. He points to a whole bunch of science (including the Ultimatum Game) which shows that our relationships have a direct impact on our transactions. When exchanging value with another party with whom you have a relationship, more often than not the price or payment will change; this is of course intuitive – we often call this ‘mates’ rates’.
And the opposite is also true – our relationships with one another often change when a transaction (for example price) is introduced. It’s easy to bring this to life: imagine you work as a volunteer (or at least do something for free) and are intrinsically motivated to do that work – you enjoy the work itself, value being part of a group and feel there’s a broader purpose to it. Then imagine you start to be paid for that work. All the evidence shows that you’ll begin to behave differently; the relationship has changed. And interestingly, the more you are paid, there’s a lot of science which shows that your performance could even get worse. This is a good example of how extrinsic motivations (like being paid, or being punished for certain behaviours) can often ‘crowd out’ our intrinsic motivations. (Shirky points to an excellent academic paper on the subject: A Fine is a Price)
But it all starts with the relationship (or lack of one). He goes on to show that the outcomes for both parties are actually fairer when the parties have a relationship. Put another way, when we don’t know or trust the other person (or company) we care less about them and tolerate less-fair outcomes.
It’s all about sharing
The Cognitive Surplus is at its heart all about sharing and so Shirky takes a closer look at what this means in practice. He believes that there are four types:
- Personal – it’s uncoordinated, for example home-made YouTube videos and lolcats – anyone can do it but the benefits are mainly personal;
- Communal – it’s collaborative, for example sharing findings within an academic research group or reviews within a book club – only the group can do it, and only the group benefits;
- Public – it’s open, for example open-source software – anyone can do it, and it benefits even those not involved; and
- Civic – it’s for society, for example the occupy movement and the Arab spring – anyone can do it and it’s the wider community and society that benefit.
He points out that much of today’s sharing is for personal and communal reasons; that is, the benefits are primarily for individuals and groups. Shirky believes there is a great opportunity in front of us: to build systems, platforms and tools which enable and encourage public and civic sharing for a wider benefit.
He points to three waves of innovation which underpin this opportunity: a low cost of experimentation; a huge base of potential users; and no need to ask permission. (I see these directly related to the principles of the internet outlined by Doc Searls and David Weinberger in World of Ends –specifically N.E.A.: No one owns it; Everyone can use it; Anyone can improve it).
In order for us to take advantage of these innovation waves we’ll need to design the technology to do so. Shirky states that when we assume people are principally selfish, too often we design systems that reward selfish behaviours – systems which “provide lots of individual freedom to act but not public value or management of collective resources for the public good”.
Instead, he says, we should provide access to cheap and flexible tools for sharing that can tap into the Cognitive Surplus in a meaningful way. A great example cited is Ushahidi.com, a non-profit tech company who build crowd-sourcing platforms for people to share information and to map and organise that information easily. Originally it was used in Kenya to track and map incidents of violence, where individuals were freely able to submit reports using their phones and the internet; the platform has since been reused around the world, notably in crisis-stricken regions.
As we increasingly become one another’s infrastructure, and as we build new systems to provide the means and opportunity to connect, share and learn, we can begin to see the promise of the Cognitive Surplus. But it’s why we’ll do this that’s important. If we can understand and enable our intrinsic motivations – the need for competence, autonomy, membership and sharing – then we’ll be able to use our free time as participants, instead of having it filled for us as passive consumers. And building on our relationships, we can together – at scale in crowds – begin to share for public and civic reasons to benefit everyone.
At the end of the book Shirky outlines some principles which we should consider when designing, building and launching new systems or ways of working – these best sum up my lessons from the book so here they are:
- Start small – projects that depend on growth for success generally won’t grow;
- Understand what will motivate users – we must design and build our systems and tools once we know WHY people will use it (e.g. intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivations);
- Understand what opportunity you are providing – we must grasp what is being provided and how it will be used;
- Default to social – growth comes from sharing, and it’s the defaults that drive reinforcing behaviours (e.g. open vs. closed);
- Vary participation – groups bring diversity, so we must enable all levels and types of user engagement – people need a low threshold to get started;
- Enable self-governance – central governance doesn’t scale so help the community form and regulate its own rules and behaviours (but provide mediation where needed);
- Tweak as you grow – listen to the community, be responsive and open to feedback.
To wrap up, Cognitive Surplus has really made me think hard about how and why we share – and to what end. If you don’t have time to read the book, go check out Shirky’s TED talk on the subject. Whilst short, it gives you a good sense of what it all means, and the potential of it. I’ll post some more on these ideas at some point soon.
In my last post, I said that identity is the sharing of personal data in context, and defined the layers of personal data types that we share. I consider this to be the WHAT of identity. Now I want to look at the HOW of identity.
In some ways, I believe identity is a result of a Hierarchy of Sharing – like this:
What I’m trying to show here is that we share personal data selectively – we filter it – so that others get enough information about us so they can identify us, and so that we can express who we are (and what we believe).
There are two important points here
- The filtering of personal data is another name for privacy – how we decide what to share, with whom, how and in what context – this is trust-based, as we’ll see in a minute
- Identity is an outcome of this filtering – we base our identities on the underlying personal data (and therefore rely on the sources of that personal data)
This helps explain how my identity is created, using my privacy filters and my personal data (this could be Self Data, Being Data, Attributed Data or Created Data – see here for what I mean by these). It’s also shows that it’s created in context, with my permission. But what about Inferred Data – stuff which is created about me but by others, for others (like your credit score). This creates a different identity – an Inferred Identity:
At the bottom is Inferred Data about you (your guessed location, your guessed intentions, your guessed financial history, your guessed age). This type of data is usually generated, stored and analysed by companies to help them drive sales and retain customers.
In order to make use of inferred data, organisations use rule-based assumptions (they need to use rules because these assumptions are processed by computers to manage large numbers of customers). The result is an inferred – and not real – identity. Who they think you are. This identity isn’t a true reflection of you; at best it’s someone similar to you. In my last post I called this a ‘hollow you’. It’s almost always never held in context (they don’t really know what, where or why you are), nor is it endorsed by you (it’s all done behind organisational walls).
So if we agree that a real identity has to be based on real personal data, shared in context, we should look at this idea of privacy in more detail – how we get from data to identity.
My privacy means “I can trust you”
I choose to share things with those I trust. The more I trust, the more I am likely to share. The less I trust, the less I am likely to share. Trust and sharing are directly correlated. Privacy is about choosing what to not to share. So it’s not a leap to say that ‘my privacy’ is simply the set of rules I use for trust-based sharing.
Put another way, privacy is a way to ensure I can trust you, so that when I share information about myself I can believe that it will be handled in the right way (more on that in another post soon).
I said earlier that identity is how I express who I am (or what I believe) to others. This idea that privacy is a filter begins to makes sense: privacy is choosing what clothes I’m happy others to see me wearing (or indeed not – see this great post on Clothing as Privacy System); it’s choosing what music I’m happy others to hear me listening to; it’s choosing what religious (or indeed non-religious) words I’m happy other people hearing me speaking; or what medical information I’m happy to tell other people about. Privacy is a filter.
My identity means “You can trust me”
Trust has to be between people. It’s not something that exists on its own (I don’t need to trust myself). So really trust is how certain you can be of others’ identity (indeed this makes sense: if we are not sure WHO someone is, we trust them less).
In other words, my identity means you can trust me. But how do you know that it’s my real personal data being used – how can you prove my identity? Regardless of the type of data being shared (be that my education qualifications, my bank statement, my history of eating out or my driving license) I think there are there are two types of trust here: direct and indirect.
This is where we have a direct relationship – personal experience so that we can be certain of a behaviour or outcome e.g. “I’ve worked with him for 20 years – I trust him to turn up on time”, “I have eaten here before – I trust this restaurant to serve great food” or “I taught her to drive – I trust her not to crash my car”. Security technology also enables direct trust. For example I log on to work systems using my user name and password – my employer (or rather their systems) can trust who I am because we have a direct relationship.
This is where we have no direct relationship so we have to rely on another person or group to validate the person’s identity (who they are or what they believe). Most usually this is a professional body or company e.g. “He has trained for 7 years at medical school – I trust his diagnosis” or “She has a taxi license – I trust her to take me to the station”, or indeed “This man has a plastic ID with a company logo – I trust him to come and take the gas meter reading”.
Trust through networks
I believe we’ve moved from a world of mostly Direct Trust (where we knew everyone around us well) to one of increasing Indirect Trust (where we know many more people, but less well). On a daily basis we now connect, produce, share, learn and play with people from all over the world. New communication tools – most obviously the internet – mean that we can now connect with many more people than previously possible. Some of these people are on the other side of the world, but most are much closer to us, even local. As we discover and connect with new people – wherever they are – we have an increasing need for Indirect Trust. Our digital world makes this even more important, when copying and distributing data have zero marginal cost. It’s easier than ever to copy and share our personal data – and indeed our identities.
So how do we manage trust in a world in which it’s increasingly difficult to validate sources of data, and indeed be able to trust those providing Indirect Trust?
The answer is networks. Now, I don’t want to open up a discussion on security or technology here, but I think it’s worth thinking about how relationship networks can help us solve some of these problems.
Direct Trust is created between two people, one-to-one. Over the last few years social networks have gone some way to helping us build Direct Trust, mainly because we have to validate each other in order to share privately (e.g. we must both ‘friend’ or ‘follow’ each other). Sharing has increased as a result. Indeed, in general, a generation of ‘digital natives’ share far more about themselves than previous generations are comfortable doing. Social networks have enabled this culture, not created it – sharing is inherently human, and not something new – the networks have just helped us connect with each other in a trusted way.
But I think social networks as we use them today are limited in how they build and foster trust. Firstly, so many of our social networks are just massive – we are connected with too many people (definitely larger than Robin Dunbar would suggest we need to really know each other) and so we can’t truly know everyone, or indeed be able to trust everyone directly.
Secondly, social network relationships are ON or OFF: We are Friends or not; Colleagues or not; Followers or not. And so we are forced to have open or closed relationships with everyone we chose to connect with (and as a result share everything we make public from wish lists and party photos to requests for help, updates of where we are and what we’re doing to gossip). This, as we have seen with Facebook, means we are often given overly-complicated privacy controls so we can manually tinker with exactly what we want to share and with whom. (And of course we can do the opposite with notification controls: so we can manually tinker with who shares what with us). In my experience, and my observations of others around me, it’s all a bit complicated: most people end up leaving the settings as open or closed. As a result, we tend to put up with over- (or indeed under-) sharing. This doesn’t build trust – in fact it undermines it.
Ultimately it becomes difficult to have anything other than Indirect Trust with the vast number of people in our networks. Previously I’ve tried to show that identity is all about context. What the current set of social networks lack is deep context. I can be connected to friend-of-a-friend I met at a party once, but I can’t necessarily trust them out of the context of that party. And I can be a ‘friend’ to a multinational corporation, but I can’t necessarily trust all their products or services.
What we need is smarter ways to build Indirect Trust through networks, with context. And that’s why I’m excited about companies like www.connect.me, a US start-up looking to put the relationship back into the network. I’m looking forward to a time when I don’t need to ‘friend’ or ‘follow’ a person or company to build trust – when we can vouch for each other in context e.g. for a friend’s cooking skills or fluency in a language, or for a company’s customer experience, or indeed a particular product (especially if that’s all I want to vouch for).
We do of course need new tools and standards to help us authenticate and share data sources, and better, intuitive tools to help us manage privacy around our personal data. Much of this is being accelerated by those working in the Vendor Relationship Management community. But first we need to recognise that identity is contextual, and therefore so is trust – and that we need smarter ways to manage trust in context.