David Bowie once said, “Tomorrow belongs to those who can hear it coming.”
That is the sound of data as it finds its path to freedom.
In listening to the rhetoric surrounding Mark Zuckerberg’s testimony to Congress this week, I can feel the buzz of entrepreneurs around the world sensing a pivotal moment.
Our personal data is on the road to freedom. And to ensure that freedom, a new industry must emerge.
Yes, the road will be chaotic. Regulations will get written, and companies may be applauded or vilified along the way, but when the dust settles, our personal data will be free to improve our lives.
It may take the better part of the next decade. Real change takes time, but it is going to happen. We are starting to see it already, led by regulation in Europe that will force internet companies to give their European users control over their personal data.
It’s worth a moment to reflect on what “personal data” really means. We are all walking, talking and driving data streams. We are chronicling our lives and desires on social media. Our devices are tracking our bodies. Our cars are showing our safety habits. Our phones act like a personal GPS. We are creating a new cloud.
And yet this data is mostly housed behind walls. We can often see the surface data (our friends, likes, posts, heart rate, sleep patterns), but we can rarely see the data in aggregate. What patterns are emerging in our lives that matter?
We don’t know who is really advertising to us or why. We can’t see the aggregate data from our activity tracker, which would allow us to analyze it further. Our automotive data may be delivered in a weekly email, but it is otherwise unavailable. We have no capability to receive and store all of this data or to look across the different streams and see patterns that may lead to valuable insights.
That doesn’t make sense. The triangle of business involves the individual, the channel and the marketer who wants to reach us. If we all have equal access to data, we can align more effectively, learn from each other and innovate faster. One side of this triangle cannot hold all of the data and expect it to work long term.
The walls are already starting to crumble. One of the best examples, thus far, is data.world, which is harnessing all of the world’s public data sets in an open forum. With more than 20 million data sets identified, they are on their way. For perspective, Google started with 2.4 million links.
This same spirit of “open source data” needs to apply to our personal data including all the channels, the devices, and the vehicles we own or participate in.
The Facebook discussion is just the tip of the spear.
Soon enough, we will select who advertises to us, not the other way around.
In concept it won’t be that different from the way, today, that we decide in social channels who our friends will be and which people, organizations, companies, and brands to follow.
As we aggregate all of our social, personal and health data, we will be on the way to building our “Me-nome.” It is our digital DNA, in a sense. It could allow us to see how to drive more safely, or to understand which foods we should eat to match up with our genomic profile, or to look at all of our posts on all social channels in one place. We could then compare our results with the results in open source forums and see where we stand. We would crowdsource the lessons of our peers worldwide.
It’s time for data to be free. It’s time for all of us to take ownership and responsibility for it. And it’s time for the entrepreneurs of the world to start building a new generation of personal clouds that will revolutionize the value of data for all of us.
Can you hear it coming?  I can.
Bob Pearson is Vice Chair & Chief of Innovation, W2O Group