William Hoffman discusses the potential benefits of the expanding personal data ecosystem

As our shared understanding of the personal data ecosystem matures, it is becoming increasingly evident that it represents a transformative opportunity. As the trusted flow of personal data increases, so too are the possibilities for new discoveries. Improvements in healthcare, financial services, urban transport, retail and government services are just some of the areas where the impact of data-driven insights is emerging.

But to achieve these benefits at global scale, a deeper understanding of the complexity and interdependency of multiple issues needs to be achieved. A holistic framework for personal data – which examines the array of underlying social, political and commercial issues and the thousands of interconnected relationships between them – needs to be more fully understood.

The taxonomy of terms such as privacy, context, resilience and the engagement of the individual need to be more clearly framed and the tensions between them identified. There needs to be a broader realization that the frameworks for balancing these tensions are just emerging. Our legacy approaches to collaboratively address these challenges are largely inadequate. They were designed for a complicated world, not a complex, constantly changing and hyperconnected one.

So where do we start? What are some of the new approaches that will add stability, accountability, security, innovation and the engagement of individuals into the personal data ecosystem? One starting point is to shift away from trying to control the regulation of data itself and to focus on the management of how data is used. We need usage-based approaches that are balanced, flexible and encourage innovation, but that also protect the rights of individuals.

These new approaches will need to be anchored on principles. In this light, there is a strong foundation of consensus to build upon. Many of the principles that have been in place for decades are still sound. While a few may need to be updated (collection and use limitations, purpose specification to be precise), the real work needs to occur in finding new ways to uphold and enforce our agreed upon principles. In our constantly changing world, we need new ways to hold stakeholders accountable. We need new approaches for enforcement that are fit for the borderless nature of the digital world. We need to find the means to build the world we want.

Managing such a flexible and dynamic system will not be easy. It will require action by all stakeholders coming together to agree on refreshed principles and ways to implement them. Contract law, codes of conduct and technological solutions are all part of the new equation. There is also a need for better evidence of what works and what doesn’t. We need real world safe harbours where innovative uses of personal data can be better understood.

By rethinking our approaches to personal data, the opportunities to both create new global opportunities for socioeconomic growth and to protect the rights of individuals can be achieved. The future may not just be bright – it could be brilliant.  

Read the Unlocking the Value of Personal Data: From Collection to Usage

Author: William Hoffman is Associate Director, Telecommunications Industry, at the World Economic Forum USA.

Image: A woman stares at a computer screen REUTERS/Michael Dalder