Datafication of Everything: Who Owns All The Data ?

Datafication of Everything: Who Owns All The Data ?

The full digitalisation of everything surrounding us has transformed our lives. At this very moment more and more parts of the world are being digitised, resulting in escalating amounts of data being produced everyday. If digitisation has had a major impact in the world, datafication, is the next step.

Digitisation began in the late 1950s, with the birth of the semiconductor industry. It refers to the conversion of pieces of information into digital formats, for example text into HTML pages, music into MP3s, images into JPEG or similar. Datafication, on the other hand, is a more recent process, which means that everything – from how much energy and water one uses, to what each one’s food purchasing habits are, to what interests one displays when using social networks, the air quality of the local neighborhood, the knowing if one is anxious or stressed, or how many cups of tea one takes each day, in sum, EVERYTHING, can and is being transformed into data that can now be measured, quantified and compared to other people.

What is Datafication

Datafication adds meaning and value to those bits of information being gathered each second, so one can say that datafication is a modern technological trend turning many aspects of our life into computerised data and transforming this information into new forms of value.

In 2014, Ericsson wrote a report about datafication where they explore the profound impact of this novel trend:

“A new process of datafication is emerging across the world. In contrast to digitalisation, which enabled productivity improvements and efficiency gains on already existing processes, datafication promises to completely redefine nearly every aspect of our existence as humans on this planet. Significantly beyond digitalisation, this trend challenges the very foundations of our established methods of measurement and provides the opportunity to recreate societal frameworks, many of which have dictated human existence for over 250 years.”

Datafication appears in society in multiple ways, partly resulting from the ubiquitous use of sensors/actuators and the emerging Internet of Things (IoT). Over the last decade, the cost of sensors decreased immensely, whereas the processing capacity and availability of low-cost bandwidth augmented. The process became more capable to enter into business processes that have until recently been un-monitored.

Datafication of personalities Image source:

An interesting area of datafication is the datafication of personality. This corresponds to the capability to accurately predict personality types by using mobile phone data. The commercial potential for this is amazing. According to a study conducted by Montjoye et al (2013) it is now possible to proceed with “costeffective, questionnaire-free investigation of personality-related questions at a scale never seen before”.

There is a question now that needs to be asked: who owns and takes economical advantage of your data?

Who Owns And is Making Money With Your Data ?

The use of datafication applied to social and communication media is widespread. Just look at how Twitter datafies stray thoughts, or the datafication of human resources by LinkedIn and others. An interesting article on Wired gives a great example that helps us understand this issue: The new cars usually have a kind of “black box” and various types of computers. The black box is able to gather information about exactly where you are, how fast you’re driving, and many other details of your driving habits. The crucial question is who owns that data. The insurance company? The auto manufacturer? The driver?

Another example is how companies like Facebook and Google sell our information so that advertisers know the tastes of certain groups. With such specific data, advertising companies can study in detail various age groups, locations and tastes to advertise products.

Every day people generate streams of metadata about themselves constantly, through their interactions on their social media accounts, as described previously. Who is collecting and controlling this constant stream of personal data ? And who is making business and gaining profit with that data?

The issue at stake with data ownership is that data is radically different from a physical assets. Data is done by bits, not atoms. In the past, laws and regulation focused on physical assets that couldn’t be duplicated. We live now in a world of bits, where it is possible to make and distribute, say, a million copies of a virtual book, each as good as the original, nearly at cost zero.

Data law is confusing and we don’t know yet out to regulate it and what is own by who. Big Data on the other hand is different. The general tendency is to consider that the act of collecting and analyzing massive amounts of public and private data, that results afterwards in even more data, belongs to whomever performed the analysis, which tend to be large online companies. As expected this has been highly criticised, the hoarding data about people to make a profit, while refusing to make it available publicly.

DECODE: Giving People Ownership of Their Personal Data through Blockchain

A very recent project trying to experiment with data ownership in novel and fruitful ways, benefiting all, is DECODE, a project that provides tools that put individuals in control of whether they keep their personal data private or share it for the public good. DECODE is a three-year EU-funded project, dubbed the Decentralised Citizen Owned Data Ecosystem (DECODE), which plans to launch four pilot trials in Barcelona and Amsterdam at the end of 2017. In each city, 1000 people will be given an app through which they can share data about themselves to help companies or government groups create products or services to improve the city. The project is due to end in 2019. The app is done through blockchain technology, which is defined as a digital ledger that securely stores data across a network of computers in a decentralised way. Blockchain is the technology that underpins bitcoin transactions.

With DECODE each citizen will be able to decide exactly how much of their data is uploaded to the platform and how it should be used. For example, a person may decide that location-tracking data about parks they visit can be used by the city council but not private companies

In the UK, it is Nesta, UK’s innovation charity, the organization working in cooperation with 13 partner agencies across the European Union on the DECODE project.


Tom Symons, a Nesta researcher leading the work on DECODE, hopes that the project will end up channelling public data into a greater number of socially beneficial projects. The project is still in its inception, so Nesta is consulting with local governments, entrepreneurs and other groups to understand what kind of data they would like to have access to through the DECODE platform.

According to Symons, it could be possible to combine publicly available data such as social media posts with location information to better understand how people feel about different parts of the city. The DECODE project also plans to launch a website or app that lets citizens share things with other people in the city. People might use the platform to offer up spare power tools or even their car for other residents to borrow, which could eventually end up being a better alternative to the current centralized sharing economy companies such as Uber and others.

Finally,  residents will be able to use the platform to comment on city legislation, put forward their own ideas and vote on proposals. Thishas already been experimented on others platforms such as Decidim Barcelona, which was put in place to encourage more open and collaborative decision-making in the city.

Even if the issue of the monetization of our data is not being addressed with DECODE, the project is a first experiment with using common data for the public benefit of all. Blockchain technology can have an important role in the development of platforms where fostering a fairer use of datafication.