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The ability to access, control and use personal data has become a major challenge and more worrisome a means by which big internet companies can drive profits. This is DECODE’s starting point for asking: Is it possible to develop tools that enable individuals to collectively share personal information on their own terms? And if so, how do we design these tools?

Dubious Fragmented Digital Ecosystem

The EU funded project DECODE is a response to people’s growing concerns about a loss of control over their personal information on the internet. While the huge quantities of data produced every day offer potential for insights, applications, and services which could benefit all of society, the data remains controlled by a handful of monopolies and thus inaccessible to people and organizations who want to create solutions for public benefit. This monopolization of data threatens to undermine trust between citizens, public institutions, and companies, which is essential for a stable, sustainable and collaborative economy. A further observation of the data status quo renders the current digital ecosystem highly fragmented, with a multitude of non-interoperable vertical solutions, all offering their own set of devices, gateways and platforms, and means of data handling in data “silos”. This fragmentation makes data unmanageable and end users ultimately lose control over it.

DECODE and its involved project partners aim to show ways out of this dilemma. It is an experimental project to develop practical alternatives to how we use the internet today – four European pilots will show the wider social value that comes with individuals being given the power to take control of their personal data and given the means to share their data differently. Over three years DECODE is exploring how to build a data-centric digital economy where data that is generated and gathered by citizens, the Internet of Things (IoT), and sensor networks is made available for broader communal use, with appropriate privacy protections. As a result, innovators, startups, NGOs, cooperatives, and local communities can take advantage of that data to build apps and services that respond to their needs and those of the wider community.

Entitlements in Open Data Commons

In practical terms, the research and developer team will create tools which will give people ownership of their data. These tools will combine blockchain technology with attribute-based cryptography to give the data owner control of how their data is accessed and used. The pilots for testing the tools will happen in Amsterdam and Barcelona applying the technology to specific use-cases. This will help build a trustworthy and privacy-aware digital society. This is a beacon project for all digital endeavors in favor of sustainability too, as it explores how trust and privacy can be guaranteed by new governance frameworks, and how this can lead to innovative economic models based on open data commons.

A  data commons is a shared resource – made accessible and intentionally open – rather than subject to restrictions through licensing. It enables everyone to contribute, access and use the data in the data commons. The data can be used an unlimited number of times and no-one is excluded from accessing it. In this sense, data can be seen as an economic public good alongside more traditional examples such as street lights. In combination with entitlements, private data would be searchable in the public domain but access will be granted only to those parties that have the entitlement to access it. This novel concept of data rights and entitlements also applies to data being sent to or used by connected Internet of Things (IoT) objects in order to perform actions in the real world, allowing citizens to manage and control their devices and the data they generate.

Basically DECODE is exploring a whole new world of data governance for the public good and personal data sovereignty, which will be crucial for data-driven sustainable solutions and services. We cannot wait for their tools to be made public…