Cancel My Data! (And other metrical principles.)

August 11, 2009





At the last QS Show&Tell, Mike Kirkwood talked about his health monitoring company Polka. There will be video available soon, and I look forward to posting it. This post is about some a more general question partly inspired by the thinking Mike is doing at Polka.

The question is: what do I want to do with my/your numbers?

The numbers I’m referring to are the ones that I generate, but you collect, and by “you” I mean anybody who is in the metrics business: hospitals, marketers, banks, government agencies, non-governmental agencies, academics, etc. Conventional wisdom calls for anybody serving the public commercially or non-commercially to collect data from every touch. There’s so much you can do with this data!

Okay, that’s fine, but what can I do with it? The border between the individual user whose behavior is tracked in some way, and the organization doing the tracking, is usually marked by certain documents and agreements: privacy policies, for instance, or consent agreements related to the conduct of studies involving human subjects. These documents are necessary, but not sufficient. The express the minimal obligations you agree to fulfill when tracking my data. What I’d like to raise here goes beyond minimal obligations, and reaches toward an idea of reciprocity.

The reason I was inspired to think about this by Mike Kirkwood is that behind Polka, the health-monitoring app, is something he calls the “me server.” The purpose of the me server is to allow the individual to be represented (abstractly) in the network, so that requests for personal data can be securely controlled through permissions. To really explain this concept would take more space and time than I’m going to give to it here. After Mike’s video goes up I’ll follow with an interview that gets into some of the details. But the notion of controlling access to our personal data in a manner analogous to the way we control network permissions – that is, a system that permits a customizable range of access from full, real-time control to complete denial – is really important, I think.

It prompted me to ask myself what I would want from such a system, and by “what I want” I mean, what features, if they were in place, would inspire me to do what I really long to do: track everything.

Here’s the list of what I want. I hope it prompts some discussion.

–    I want the data you collect about me to be discoverable: what are you tracking?
–    I want it to be exportable: I can play with it on my own system
–    I want it to be shareable: it should conform to a standard
–    I want it to be understandable: give me some access to your analytical tools
–    I want it to be cancelable: I can change my mind about your permissions

In talking about these ideas, the last one seems to people to be the hardest. How can I take something back you already have?

Can you think of any answers?

(In a few days, I’ll share some that others have come up with.)

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