A few weeks ago I sat down for a virtual interview with Molly Schwartz from Open Knowledge Finland about my thoughts on open data and mydata and why I am so excited about the MyData 2016 conference. The three-day conference is taking place from August 31 to September 2 in Helsinki and is being organized by Open Knowledge Finland in partnership with Aalto University and Fing.

You can register for MyData 2016 here. Discount price for the members of the Open Knowledge Network is just 220 eur / 3 day conference. Ask for the discount code from (jogi@okf.fi) before registering at the MyData 2016 Holvi store. You can also still apply to be a volunteer for the conference.

This event shares many of the same organizers as the 2012 Open Knowledge Festival in Helsinki so you can expect the same spirit of fun, creativity and quality that made that such an incredible experience.


Molly Schwartz: So hi everybody, this is Molly Schwartz here, one of the team members helping to put on the MyData conference in Helsinki from August 31 to September 2. And I’m sitting here with one of our plenary speakers, Dr. Rufus Pollock, who is one of founders and the president of Open Knowledge, a worldwide network working to provide access to more open and broad datasets. So we’re very excited to have him here. So, Rufus, something that not a lot of people know is that MyData is actually an initiative that was born out the Finnish chapter of Open Knowledge (OKFFI), how do you feel about things that were kind of started by your idea springing up of their own accord?

Rufus Pollock: Well, it’s inspirational and obviously really satisfying. And not just in a personal way: it’s just wonderful to see how things flourish. Open Knowledge Finland have been an incredibly active chapter. I first went to Finland in I think it was 2010, and I was inspired then. Finland is just a place where you have a feeling you are in a wise society. The way they approach things, they’re very engaged but they have that non-attachment, a rigor of looking at things, and also trying things out. Somehow there’s not a lot of ego, people are very curious to learn and also to try things out, and I think deep down are incredibly innovative.

And I think this event is really in that tradition. I think the area of personal data and MyData is a huge issue, and one with a lot of connections to open data, even if it’s distinct. So I think it’s a very natural thing for a chapter from Open Knowledge to be taking on and looking at because it’s central to how we look at the information society, the knowledge society, of the 21st Century.

MS: Definitely. I totally agree. I like that you brought up that this concept of personal data is somewhat distinct, but it’s inevitably tied to this concept of opening data. Oftentimes opening datasets, you’re dealing with personal datasets as well. So, what are the kind of things you’re planning to speak about, loosely, at the conference, and what do you look forward to hearing from other people who will be at the MyData?

RP: Yes, that’s a great question. So, what am I looking to talk about and engage with and what am I looking forward to hearing about? Well, maybe I’ll take the second first.

What I am looking forward to

I think one of the reasons I’m really excited to participate and come is it’s the area where – even though I obviously know a lot about data and open data – this area of personal data is one where I am not as much an expert – by a long way. So I’m really curious to hear about it and especially about things like: what is the policy landscape? What do people think are the big things that are coming up? I’m really interested to see what the business sector is looking at.

There’s been quite a lot of discussion about how one could innovate in this space in a way that is both a wider opportunity for people to use data, personal data in usable ways, maybe in health care, maybe in giving people credit, I mean in all kinds of areas. But how do you do that in a way that respects and preserves people’s privacy, and so on. So, I think that’s really interesting as well, and again I’m not so up on that space. I’m looking forward to meeting and hearing from some of the people in that area.

my data 2016

And similarly on the policy, on the business side, and also on the civil society side and on the research side. I’ve heard about things like differential privacy and some of the breakthroughs we’ve had over the last years about how one might be able to allow people like researchers to analyse information, like genetics, like healthcare without getting direct access to the individual data and creating privacy issues. And there’s clearly a lot of value one could have from researchers being able to look at, for example, at genomic data from individuals across a bunch of them. But it’s also crucial to be able to preserve privacy there, and what are the kind of things going on there? And the research side I think would also touch on the policy side of matters as well.

What I would like to contribute

That brings me to what, for my part, I would like to contribute. I think Open Knowledge and we generally are on a journey at a policy level. We’ve got this incredible information revolution, this digital revolution, which means we’re living in a world of bits, and we need to make sure that world works for everyone. And that it works, in the sense that, rather than delivering more inequality – which it could easily do – and more exploitation, it give us fairness and empowerment, it brings freedom rather than manipulation or oppression. And I think openness is just key there.

And this vision of openness isn’t limited to just government – we can do it for all public datasets. By public datasets I don’t just mean government datasets, I mean datasets that you can legitimately share with anyone.

Now private, personal data you can’t legitimately give to anyone, or share with anyone — or you shouldn’t be able to!

So I think an interesting question is how those two things go together — the public datasets and the private, personal data. How they go together both in overall policy, but also in the mind of the public and of citizens and so on — how are they linked?

And this issue of how we manage information in the 21st century doesn’t just stop at some line where it’s like, oh, it’s public data, you know, and therefore we can look at it this way. Those of us working to make a world of open information have to look at private data too.

At Open Knowledge we have always had this metaphor of a coin. And one side of this coin is public data, e.g. government data. Now that you can open to everyone, everyone is empowered to have access. Now the flip side of that coin is YOUR data, your personal data. And your data is yours: you should get to choose how it’s shared and how it’s used.

Now while Open Knowledge is generally focused on, if you like, the public side, and will continue to do so, overall I think across the network this issue of personal data is just huge, it has this huge linkage. And I think the same principles can be applied. Just as for open data what we say is that people have freedom to access, share, use, government, whatever data is being opened, so with YOUR data, YOU should be empowered to access, share, and use that, as YOU see fit. And right now that is just not the case. And that’s what leads to the abuses we get concerned about, but it’s also what stops some of the innovation and stops people from being empowered and able to understand and take action on their own lives — what might you learn from having my last five years of, say, your shopping receipts or mobile phone location data.

Ultimately what happens to public data and what happens to personal data, they’re interconnected, both in people’s minds and, in a sense, they don’t just care about one thing or another, they care about, how is digital information going to work, how’s my data going to be managed, how’s the world’s data going to be managed.

I also think MyData is some of the most relevant issues for ordinary people. For example, just recently I had to check if someone paid me and it was just a nightmare. I had to scroll back through endless screens on my online banking account to find ways to download different files to piece it all together. Why didn’t they let me download all the data in a convenient way rather than having to dig forever and then only get the last three months. They’ve got that data on their servers, why can’t I have it? And, you know, maybe not only do I want it, but maybe there’s some part I would share anonymized, it could be aggregated and we could discover patterns that might be important — just, as one example we might be able to estimate inflation better. Or take energy use: I would happily share my house’s energy use data with people, even if it does tell you when I go to bed, I’d be happy to share if that let’s us discover how to make things environmentally better.

The word I think at the heart of it is empowerment. We at Open Knowledge want to see people empowered in the information age to understand, to make choices, to hold power to account, and one of the fundamental things is you being empowered with the information about you that companies or governments have, and we think you should be given access to that, and you should be choosing who else has access to it, and not the company, and not the government, per se.

MS: Yes. And that’s exactly the principle of why MyData came out of Open Knowledge, as you mentioned earlier, the idea of why can not these principles of Open Knowledge, of the datasets we want to be receiving, also apply to our data that we would like to be open in the same way back to us?

RP: Absolutely correct Molly, I mean just yes, absolutely.

MS: And that’s why it’s also so interesting, so many people have been talking about this kind of inherent tension between openness and privacy, and kind of, changing how we’re thinking about that, and seeing it actually as the same principles just being applied to individual people.

RP: Exactly, back in 2013 I wrote a post with my co-CEO Laura James about this idea and even used the term MyData. There’s an underlying unity that you’re pointing out that actually is a deep principle.

Remember openness isn’t an end in itself, right, it’s a means to an end – like money! And the purpose of having information and opening it up is to empower human beings to do something, to understand, to innovate, to learn, to discover, to earn a living, whatever it is. And that idea of empowerment, fundamentally, is common in both threads, both to MyData and personal data and access to that, and the access to public data for everyone. So I think you are totally right.

MS: Yes. So, thank you so much Rufus for joining us today, we are so looking forward to having you at the conference. You mention that you’ve been to Finland before. How long ago was that?

RP: I was there in 2012 for Open Knowledge Festival which was amazing. And then in 2010. Finland is an amazing place, Helsinki is an amazing place, and it will be an amazing event, so I really invite you to come along to the conference.

MS: I second that, and it’s many of the same people who are involved in organizing the Open Knowledge Festival who are involved in organizing MyData, so we can expect much of the same.

RP: A brilliant programme, high quality people. An incredible kind of combination of kind of joy and reliability, so you’ll have an amazing time, come join us.

MS: Yes. Ok, so thank you Rufus, and we will see you in August!

RP: See you in August!

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Rufus Pollock is Founder and President of Open Knowledge.