No 6: Citizen-control of personal information

If the big political innovation of the moment is to give power back to people, then a good place to do it is with personal data.

Whose data is it anyway? Whose health, whose education, whose identity, whose shopping history, bank details, travel plans, creditworthiness? Yet all these personal details, which affect us, are stored on hundreds of state and private-sector databases.

If I said there were 50bn personal records for the UK’s 50m people no-one would know to contradict me, and whether in truth there were more or fewer.What we can all agree is that it’s a major, right old pain for the individual to update every single organisation we deal with each time our circumstances change, when we move house or just lose our wallet. People’s attitudes towards what happens with their personal data lies somewhere between depressed and in denial. Many undervalue their personal data. Most behave irrationally about it, and inconsistently.

It wastes untold amounts of money, public and private and a huge amount of our time. It’s a logistical mess. It’s an affront to human dignity as well as business efficiency.

The political response is pretty easy. Stop assuming that large central databases will solve health, education, obesity. Stop assuming that only the organisation has the ability or the right to store, manage and transmit personal data. The cancellation of the National ID Scheme and of the ContactPoint databse is a good start. Note to Chris Huhne: commissioning a centralised smart-metering system at this moment would be a folly. There’s a different, much better way to do it.

The US Veterans health administration (a bigger health service than our own NHS) shows an alternative way. President Obama recently unveiled a “blue Button” for vets. It’s marked “Download my data”. The patient self-identifies online, then downloads their electronic health record in structured format. Let’s have those buttons for the health record, for education, for jobseekers as well as from banks, supermarkets and credit bureaux.

The missing element is the secure personal data store, under the control of the individual. The are various options for his, but the one we’ve been working on at the Young Foundation is called Mydex. It’s a social enterprise – a Community Interest Company – designed to help individuals realise the value of their own personal data. Live service starts next month. It will show that when individuals store and manage their data, with external verification of their claims, they can, if they so choose, help organisations towards cleaner, more accurate records.

The logistics are self-evident: individuals know their own data better. They know things about themselves no amount of CCTV or behavioural psychology will ever grasp. They are the single and only rational point of integration for their own lives. One plank of a Big Society (as Geoff Mulgan argues in his new essay Investing in Social Growth) is restoring right and control over personal data. It’ll save money, restore efficiency to processes cripples by bad data logistics, and create immense new wealth.

About William Heath

William Heath's current projects are Mydex CICCtrl-ShiftIdealGovPublicExperience and helping great startups. I'm also interested in getting Orange off my back, and a "transitional" property development based on co-housing.
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