Is Your Information Your Business?

The Business section is fast becoming the sociology of information section.

In “Twitter Is All in Good Fun, Until It Isn’t,” David Carr writes about Roland Martin being sanctioned by CNN because of controversial Twitter posts.  On the Bits page, Nick Bolton’s article “So Many Apologies, So Much Data Mining,” tells of David Morin, head of the company that produces the social network app, Path (“The smart journal that helps you share life with the ones you love.”), that got into hot water last week when a programmer in Singapore noticed it hijacked users’ address books without asking. On page B3 we find a 14 inch article by T. Vega about new research from Pew about how news media websites fail to make optimal use of online advertising.

More on those in future posts.  Right next to the Pew article, J. Brustein’s “Start-Ups Seek to Help Users Put a Price on Their Personal Data” profiles the startup “Personal” — one of several that are trying to figure out how to let internet users capitalize on their personal data by locking it up in a virtual vault and selling access bit by bit.

This last one is of particular interest to me. Back in the early 90s I floated an idea that alarmed my social science colleagues: why not let study participants own their data? The idea was inspired by complaints that well-meaning researchers at Yale, where I was a graduate student at the time, routinely made their careers on the personal information they, or someone else, had collected from poor people in New Haven. The original source of that complaint was a community activist who had a more colorful way of describing the relationship between researcher and research subject.

The idea would be to tag data garnered in surveys and other forms of observation with an ID that could be matched with an escrow database (didn’t really exist then, but now a part of “Software as a Service (Saas)”). When a researcher wanted to make use of data, she or he would include in the grant proposal some sort of data fee that would be delivered to the intermediary and then distributed as data royalties to the individuals the data concerned. The original researcher would still offer whatever enticements to participation (a bit like an advance for a book). The unique identifier held by the intermediary would allow data linking producing a valuable tool for research and an opportunity for research subjects to continue to collect royalties as their data was “covered” by new research projects just as a song writer does.

The most immediate objections were technical — real but solvable, but then came the reasoned objections. This would make research more expensive! Perhaps, but another way to see this is that it would be a matter of more fully accounting for social costs and value, and for recognizing that researchers were taking advantage of latent value in their act of aggregation (similar to issues raised about Facebook recently). Another objection was that the purpose of the research was already to help these people. True enough. But why should they bear all the risk of that maybe working out, maybe not?

And so the conversation continued. I’m not sure I like the idea of converting personal information into monetary value; I think it sidesteps some important human/social/cultural considerations about privacy, intimacy, and the ways that information behavior is integral to our sense of self and and sense of relationships. But I do think it is critically important that we think carefully about the information order and how the value of information is created by surveillance and aggregation and how we want to think about what happens to the information we give, give up, and give off.


Author: Dan Ryan

I'm currently an Academic Program Director at I've been a professor at University of Toronto, University of Southern California, and Mills College teaching things like human centered design, computational thinking, modeling for policy sciences, and social theory. I'm driven by the desire to figure out how to teach twice as many twice as well twice as easily.

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