What kind of institution do we want to be? Part II

December 15th, 2009 by Grace Meng

As described in the first post, banks and credit unions could be useful models for the datatrust because of their function of holding valuable assets for account holders.  Public libraries and museums are very different, but their function, of providing the public access to valuable social assets, is also relevant to the datatrust.

A. We want to be an online public library of useful, personal data, because no democracy can function properly without broad access to information.

Image by FreeFoto, available under a Creative Commons Non-Commercial No-Derivative Works License.

Image by FreeFoto, available under a Creative Commons Non-Commercial No-Derivative Works License.

Although public libraries now have the fuzzy-warm feeling status right up there with puppies and babies, the public library system was not established in the U.S. without controversy.  The only people who owned books were the rich, and many argued that the poor would not know how to take care of the books they borrowed.  The system was largely established through the efforts of Andrew Carnegie and others who believed in both public libraries and public schools, and that democracy could not function without public access to information.

Librarians are now champions for intellectual freedom.  As a profession, librarians have developed strong principles around the confidentiality of library users, and they were on the front lines in resisting the USA PATRIOT Act’s provisions around FBI access to library records. Although they are often underfunded and can seem out of date, the current recession has made obvious what has been going on for awhile, that people really do use the library. And when they do, they don’t abuse the privilege.  Many communities feel invested in their local branches, and the respect people have for libraries translates into a respect for their holdings.

We hope the establishment of our datatrust can follow a similar path.  Everyone may not agree now that this kind of access to information is necessary.  But we strongly believe that the status quo, where large corporations and government agencies have access but the public does not, stifles the free flow of information that really is crucial for a functioning democracy.  We hope that the datatrust can grow to engender the same kind of respect and to be a valuable member of many communities.

Of course, the information in books is qualitatively different from personal data about an individual.  If a book gets lost, it’s not as great a loss as if personal data gets misused.  Which leads us to the next point.

B. We want to make data available to the public because it is too valuable to be kept in a locked safe, the way museums make great art available.

(davinci)-mona-lisa

Museums are interesting institutions to us because they showcase extremely valuable pieces that would be safest from damage and theft if kept locked up in a vault, yet are put on public display because the value afforded to the public outweighs the risk of damage and theft.  Although they have a greater reputation for elitism than public libraries, museums also operate on the belief that certain assets, like great art or historical artifacts, should belong to society at large rather than to a private collector.  Thus, when a private collector does donate his or her collection to a museum, he or she gains the reputational benefit of having done something altruistic.  At the same time, access to the public comes with protective measures for security—guards, technology, velvet ropes, and more.

Personal data, to us at CDP, is also too valuable to keep locked up.  Arguably, personal data is currently kept by many private collectors or corporations.  They gain value from that data, but that value is not shared with the public.  Unlike art, which is usually made by an individual, personal data is collected from a large swaths of the general population, and yet we don’t have access to that data.  Like museums, we will want to think of security measures to minimize any risk, but we do acknowledge that there will be some risk, known and unknown, in our project.  But that risk is so much outweighed by the potential benefits to society, we think it’s a worthwhile experiment.

Museums also add value to their holdings by curating them.  That’s an important challenge for us, as information is only valuable when it’s organized.

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