As companies increasingly vie for possession of consumers’ data, a team of researchers from six universities including the University of the West of England (UWE Bristol) are making it easier for us to take back control of our information. To help achieve this, they have designed and developed the Hub of All Things (HAT), a digital platform that collates our personal data in one place and will soon help us use it to our advantage.
The information we forfeit on a daily basis when we shop online, post to social media, use our smartphone – even when we consume electricity – creates a stream of personal statistics known as vertical data. Hundreds of companies from retailers and airlines to electricity or gas providers subsequently hold this information. “With the HAT, we want to make this data available to you because it’s yours,” says Dr Glenn Parry, who has helped design the HAT and works as a Professor of Strategy and Operations Management at UWE Bristol.
Rewards for digital labour
The academic argues that when a company acquires our personal data, it becomes their asset, which should in fact remain with the consumers. When we concede data, we undertake what he refers to as ‘digital labour,’ as we have put in the work to create this information. Parry believes we should therefore at least receive a copy of it and determine how we use it.
Take control of your data: a video summary of what the Hub of All Things is aiming for
The HAT will help us manage and organise our data, enabling us to combine it how we want and decide how to share it on the internet. “With the HAT, we are moving towards being able to trade this data of ours in exchange for something,” he says. By collating all our information in one place, the HAT creates a horizontal data set i.e. an overview of all our shopping habits, photographs and previous locations.
Accessing the HAT will also allow us to make choices based on what we have previously experienced. For instance, in a big city, our smartphone could piece together information about a previous restaurant visit and send us a message when it detects we are walking near the eatery. The message might include photos of our favourite dish on the menu and photos we took last time we were there. In the same way, the HAT could help us with our shopping choices.
Reducing online vulnerability
One area of Professor Parry’s ongoing research for the HAT involves examining vulnerability for online users. By analysing healthcare data, he has been able to determine how much information people are prepared to concede. “It seems that people give away quite a lot and the public’s perception of our online vulnerability at the moment is very poor,” says the academic.
He advises that there are ways to stop giving away our data and that we can therefore turn off a lot of what is broadcast out. One option is to turn off the location setting on our smartphone. Another is to be extremely vigilant when deciding whether to download a free app, as by agreeing to terms and conditions, we are often opening up our contacts list or divulging our location to third parties.
“The Reality is that firms are not interested in you as an individual but a million people that look like you”
Professor Parry also warns of signing into a website via social media or a Google email (e.g. sometimes a site offers the chance to ‘sign in with Facebook’). This exposes all of our data from social media to third party companies, that can then create their own ‘horizontal’ databases by linking up all the verticals, he explains.
“The Reality is that firms are not interested in you as an individual but a million people that look like you,” says Parry.
You can see more on this subject from Professor Parry from when he spoke to Bristol-based Nudge Digital in the video below: