A manifesto for Data Literacy

Catching up on my Bloglines backlog, I noticed John Battelle’s post on a data bill of rights. Last year, I spent some time thinking about how the BBC should deal with personal data, and came up with a similar list of principles. The BBC currently has only limited authentication or profiling services, but there was a desire to do more, so I started some research work on how we should approach it. I was influenced by Live/Work’s Loome project, and commissioned them to illustrate some scenarios. As a structure for these scenarios (and as a contribution to the BBC’s 2.0 project), last summer I came up with 6 principles that I thought should inform the BBC’s attitude to capturing, retaining and using personal data:

Its Your Data
Authentication and profiling services should start from the principle that the data belongs to the user, not the company providing the service. This is a design principle, not just a philosophy – the service should be designed with this assumption at its core, and every part of the service that handles users’ personal data should assume that ownership, and therefore control, of personal data lies with the user.

It should always be visible
Following on from the previous point, the service should be designed to let users easily see their data that is held in by the service, from profiles to clickstreams to UGC. This is more than just the data transparency that Batelle calls for – its overtly designing the service with the data on the outside. By this, I mean that there should be specific views within the service that are dedicated to foregrounding user data, and making it trivially easy for users to manipulate.

Using data in a service should be a tangible experience
This is tough to do online without getting in the way of a seamless user experience, but I feel that services should be designed that make users aware in a subtle but recognisable way that their data is being used to modify the service. With off-line transactions, there’s a tangible token – handing over a loyalty card, for example – that signifies the exchange of data. For most online services, there is an initial login that sets a cookie, then nothing – the user is rarely reminded that they are leaving a complex trail of data that is having a huge affect on the service they are using. I think there could be some lessons from gaming here, where users’ data – experience points, etc – are a tangible part of the experience, and are visualised in a way that enhances user awareness and even affords certain behaviours. How could we design this kind of tangibility into other services?

Data should be tradable between services
Once users are aware of their data as a tangible part of an online experience, then why not let them ‘play’ elements of their data trail as tokens in other services? This is not the kind of under-the-counter trading between service providers that happens in schemes like Nectar. In these schemes, the user can only spend an abstracted value generated by their overall profile. What if users could choose specific aspects of their data trail to personalise aspects of other services? For example – if you’re taking part in the BBC’s Springwatch survey, how could you use your uploaded data as a fliter for a book search on Amazon? Ok, that’s a crass example, but I like the idea of users being able to trade elements of their data for more than just money off services. I’d like to be able to use my profile from one service to make a better experience on another service.

Users’ data profiles should be faceted
Very few data-profiling services let users decide which aspects of their data trails are relevant to the service their using. Most services use a just-in-case approach to profiling – they want to know everything they can about you just in case they might be able to string the data together into something meaningful for you and the service you’re using. At best, your data trail identifies you as a member of some abstract marketing profile. In the age of the Long Tail, its our specific quirky tastes that are most interesting, not the generic qualities we share with the rest of the population. How can you design a service that uses a just-in-time approach to personal data? In other words, how can you design a service that prompts the use to give you just enough personal data to enhance the service, without having to hand over their entire data trail for you to sift through? I’m a Spurs fan, I live in Hove, I’ve got two kids, and I’m interested in medium-format photography. I shop online for groceries, have a huge mortgage, but I’ve never owned a car (but do belong to a car-club). I’ve been reading a lot of books about the history of sleight of hand lately, and am still sticking with Lost, but am expecting to be disappointed. I’m mildly addicted to terrible mobile phone games, particularly driving and golf sims. I’m inspired by Sophie Calle, Forced Entertainment and Richard Feynman. Not all these things are related, so how can I choose which facets of my profile I want to reveal to a service? How can the service give me feedback that helps me understand how useful different facets of my profile are? How can this be a fun and engaging part of the service, rather than a dull box-ticking exercise?

Your data should be disposable
Finally, it should be trivially easy for users to permanently delete as much or as little of their personal data as they want. Its their data, after all, so they should have complete control over it. The service should warn you that the experience might degrade if your data trail is erased, but the final call has to be with the user. And this goes for everything from click-trails through personal profiles to uploaded UGC – text, pictures, audio and video.

Whilst at the BBC, we started a couple of projects to explore what services designed on these principles might look like. I commissioned Live/Work to illustrate some scenarios, commissioned some research from Simon Willison on OpenID, and the PMOG work that Alice commissioned from Justin Hall is a really interesting experiment in creating game-like interfaces for data trails.

But this is barely scratching the surface. I think data-literacy is one of the most important issues in society at the moment, as it touches so many other issues, from surveillance to ID cards to identify theft and even bio-technology and genetics. There is an urgent need for more products and services that are built from principles like the ones above; that inform users about how their data is being captured and used, and empowers them to play an active part in these transactions.

John Battelle’s Data Bill of Rights is a good start, but we need actual projects to illustrate why these principles will lead to a better user experience. We need a founding set of principles, but we also need projects that develop data-literacy amongst users, so that they can demand better practise from the rest of the industry. Open ID seems to be a good base to support these kind of applications, so how about a design challenge based around OpenID? Anybody want to help set this up?

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