Big data’s big letdown

There are dozens of ways in which our personal data could make our lives truly easier, simpler and better — but we’re still waiting. Big data, the great disruptor, is ripe for its own disruption.

I had a conversation not long ago with a colleague who’d recently moved homes within the same metropolitan area. He complained at length about what he called the “online logistics” of the move, which had taken a key moment in his family’s life — moving to their dream home — and drained away a fair measure of its joy.

He had to individually notify dozens of organizations about his move: bank, phone company, cable provider, security monitoring service, gas company, electrical utility, water and sewer utility, home insurer, car insurer, current employer, former employer (they owe him a pension, eventually), financial advisor, magazine subscriptions, fitness club, alma mater, school boards, governments — you get the picture. He suddenly found himself investing an inordinate amount of time coordinating and managing all these transactions.

Yet as he pointed out, the frustration evident in his voice, “there’s only one change of address. It’s the same data set, over and over. Why, in this digital era, do I have to fill out hundreds of forms with the same tiny set of data?”

He’s got a very good point. There are many ways in which data and technology have improved our lives, but moving day is a perfect example of a data failure: a moment when our personal digital technology could easily relieve the stress of life and do some heavy lifting on our behalf, yet doesn’t lift a finger.

Ostensibly, the reason my friend had to go through these steps was to protect his privacy. Each of his providers has a privacy policy that forbids them from sharing his personal data. As a result, the onus lands on him to notify every organization one by one.

But in these circumstances, there should be only one privacy policy that matters: my friend’s. If he is willing to share his change of address, he should be able to enter it only once, in a secure online location, and notify his litany of providers to come retrieve it.

It’s entirely possible to create a secure system that performs this service. In fact, there is no good reason why such a system doesn’t already exist. The network capabilities and computing power required to do so are already in place, many times over. In most places, the systems just aren’t set up to help him — or any of us, really.

The small Baltic nation of Estonia is a perfect example of what the alternative might look like. Thanks to its unique data-exchange infrastructure (known as X-Road) and its “once only” policy, which states no single piece of information should ever be entered twice, moving day there is as easy as it ought to be. X-Road allows Estonians to decide who they share information with, and even to check on who has accessed their data.

“There are lots of organizations here in North America that could host a similar type of data exchange, one focused on the needs of those who generate the data rather than those who collect it.”

The postal service is an obvious choice since it’s their job to manage addresses in the first place, though they’d likely have to beef up their technological infrastructure.

Banks are another potential host. My friend thought they were a logical choice since all those service providers essentially form the list of his payees for online banking. Banks already have a vast and secure digital infrastructure at their disposal. And most people already trust their bank’s secure network to move their money around, so they’d likely be willing to trust the bank to move their data around as well.

It’s not just moving day that could be made easier. In any situation where a single change triggers a cascade of impacts and transactions — a successful driving test, acceptance to university, a car loan, a home insurance claim, a parent’s passing — a secure data exchange could do most of the digital legwork for us. As our digital lives grow in scope and complexity, there’s an increasing need for systems that put people first and make data work better.

Ironically, the problem of “too much legwork” is what spurred the growth of the digital economy in the first place. Big Data has disrupted countless industries, so that it’s now easier than ever to hail a ride, order in, watch a movie, take a photograph, invest in stocks, and more. But when it comes to simplifying the logistics and details of everyday life, big data is failing at its own game and has become ripe for its own disruption.

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