Read on for the fascinating second half of our interview with Nigel Shadbolt, Professor of AI at University of Southampton.
Was the social contract concept the inspiration behind the midata scheme?
It was certainly one of the impulses behind it. The midata work in the UK is around customer empowerment which is to help consumers make better and more informed choices. Access to data that corporations hold would be a first step in that because, for example, they could release their own data and then the consumer could release their data to comparison sites or to various forms of aggregator or third party. As soon as you imagine that world emerging you have still got to worry about giving the right levels of permission to the third parties to take your data and do something with it in your name, so it still comes down to the issue of informed consent. So empowering the consumer is certainly one angle.
The other angle is that if the business world enters into this two-way communication, it isn't just simply the business throwing the data back at the consumer, it is the consumer having a dialogue both ways. The business that allows a channel for information to be shared back and forth can discover more insights from a customer should they wish to give it. I think that many customers could be willing to see other services being provided if there is a benefit to them. We see this in businesses where they're increasingly moving across sectors of traditional interest, whether it be large corporates who decide that they would like to work in retail energy or banking where their traditional area of business would have been elsewhere.
There has been quite a bit of concern amongst businesses around the EU Cookies Directive. Do you think that the midata scheme rather than the EU imposed directive is a much more positive way of tacking this issue?
I think that whenever you try to manage these things via regulation or directives you really need to be sure that this is the only way that you can get the result you want, or that there is a real possibility of people being disenfranchised or otherwise disadvantaged. Midata is voluntary scheme, it was always set up as a voluntary process, because we felt that explaining the benefits and a much stronger educational piece around what the nature of the contract is between the consumer and the supplier has got to be the right way to go. There is such a huge amount of education that needs to happen, and we saw this recently with the Google privacy modifications. People were not entirely aware either of what was being done or what was being proposed and as they looked into it some people realised that this was a trade they were willing to make and they would leave their web history on, other people froze it, paused it or removed it. And actually I think a lot of people don't even know it has happened now!
We are very much still in the early stages of the evolution of the digital information landscape, which is a thing that will become more and more powerful and more and more important to us. It will be an environment every bit as important to us as our physical environment. How we manage that space and how we worry about the pollutants that are put into it or how we manage the resources within it will become increasingly things that we sometimes look to regulate and sometimes try to get a better form of social regulation and good governance. I don't see there being a single method here. I think that the point about regulating a particular technology too early is that you have to think about what the consequences of that are. Having said that I think people are entitled to know what the cookie technologies are, how it works for them, what the benefits are that they are getting from it and how they can manage it should they wish to.
What do you think 2012 is going to hold in this landscape? Is it going to be a year of moving forward or of consolidation?
I think that there will be a period of consolidation, I think there has to be, but I think that we will see things progressing pretty fast also. We have commitments already in the UK in the area of the release of data back to individuals that the state holds, including medical records by the end of this Parliament. People are thinking about the same issues in the USA too under their smart disclosure work. So there are an awful lot of people waking up to the fact that data back to consumers and consumers supplying more data back to the business sector and public sector is just the way that it is going. That two-way traffic of information is getting richer and more complex all the time, and the opportunities and difficulties that we will have confront are going to figure large in 2012. We will start to see more apps and more services that actually directly provide benefits and insights for users, which we have already started to see in areas like collective purchasing.
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