Our data, ourselves

As a Product Manager specializing in data and analytics, I often grapple with problems of access to data, whether it is data about FDA-approved medications, healthcare costs, or how to speak as a citizen in what is supposed to be a democracy.

What are the problems?

There is incredible ambiguity around the question of who owns user data that we as a society consider to be private. For example, a relationship breaking up is a data point that you may not want sold to other companies. That’s why it’s a problem that people don’t believe Facebook when they claim in their Terms of Service that users own their own data.

On the other hand, a ton of data that we would consider public is locked away in proprietary systems and is not freely accessible to people and projects. For example, where can I go to tell my city councilwoman what I want from a proposed legislative action about, say, allocating tax revenues from sugar-sweetened beverages? Talking to local government should be easy, but in many cities and municipalities, data about where our local government meets and how to speak to them is hard to access, hidden somewhere in a rabbit-hole of links that lead you to PDFs that lead you to other links that lead you to something resembling a schedule of meetings.

What are the solutions?

We need our private data to not be sold to companies without our knowledge and consent! This can mean a whole host of defensive solutions we can implement as individuals as a stopgap while we hustle as a democratic society to pass and enforce legislation that protects us from our data (and our selves) from being sold for profit without our consent.

We also need access to public data that we actually have a right to access! Solutions like everypublicmeeting.com makes data about public meetings more accessible and open, so that we as a civil society can actually show up when it counts. In addition to open data projects like this, we need to create standards around how to open up public data, like what is laid out in the Open Data Handbook published by Open Knowledge International.

Why does it matter?

As human beings, we move about the world saying and doing things that impact our environments, ourselves, and other people. Our humanity is in large part defined by all this activity, which consists of characteristics like “I went to SoCal for two weeks on vacation” and “We are going down to City Hall on Monday to speak about a proposed legislative action” — which can and is often encoded digitally as data.

If what we do is who we are, then:

  • We need to be able to keep private parts of ourselves protected as we choose.
  • We also need to be able to access public parts of our society so that we have a say in the rules that govern the public parts of our lives.


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