Streamr interview - Who owns smart city data?

Open source data platform and marketplace Streamr aims to give citizens control of their data

Streamr will free data from centralised control, says Malik.
Streamr will free data from centralised control, says Malik.

Data is at the heart of the smart city and digital transformation. Connected systems, from traffic cameras to sensors in industrial equipment, all collect data, allowing it to be analysed and exploited for the benefit of the business or whoever holds the data. ‘Data is the new oil’ is the mantra, and many digital projects rely on real time data or access to new data sets to actually be able to create value.

But while sharing the data from an industrial sensor or a traffic monitoring system might not be particularly contentious, it is a different matter when it comes to the huge amount of personal data that we are creating. The issue of control of personal data is becoming more high profile, especially as people begin to realise how much personal data some companies hold on them, and that they are not getting a share of the wealth from this new oil boom.

Now a new open source project, Streamr, aims to put individuals back in control of their data, and to create a platform for the free and fair exchange of real time data.

Launched as a crowdfunded project in 2014, Streamr is intended to provide a complete system to tokenize the value of real-time data to enable a new way for machines and people to trade it on a decentralised P2P network.

What that means, according to Shiv Malik, Streamr's Head of Strategy and Communications, is the creation of a network and marketplace that allows for sharing of real time data, with control over what is shared, the potential for people to get paid for sharing, and all on a network that is free from control by one single company or government.

Malik said that there is growing consumer awareness, and discomfort at the amount of personal data held by some multinationals. The advent of privacy legislation such as GDPR is only increasing the awareness, but as as new sources of personal data come online, through smart city projects like vehicle tracking or smart fitness, so the level of consumer concern is rising.

“Most personal data is created from our current infrastructure, when you interface with your computer or your phone, and is garnered from people’s browsing habits from the web,” he said. “Smart cities is a new development on that front, and the question we have to ask ourselves is who do we want to own the infrastructure, and therefore, who will end up controlling our personal data? [In a smart city] it is not just when you are on your laptop or phone, it is going to be about every movement you make in the city, so the stakes are far higher than ever before.”

The Streamr project has created an open source infrastructure that can be shared, allowing users to see the code, and understand exactly what is happening with data collection. It will also allow cities, districts, or whoever to plug into a decentralised means of data exchange, that enables the sharing of valuable data, without centralised control.

“The code is open, but not open to abuse. We are not centralised, so it is rather like the internet today, no one really owns that infrastructure. We are looking to become that underlying infrastructure for smart cities, before big companies move in and say ‘we now provide London or Paris or Amsterdam with a smart city infrastructure, so it belongs to us’ - we don’t want that to happen.”

Streamr has two elements at present, the Streamr network, which creates the infrastructure to enable publishing, and sharing of data in a peer-to-peer fashion. The network is decentralised, with the computing power provided by participants somewhat like the bitcoin network. The network also utilised blockchain for authentication and security, and data is encrypted end to end.

The second element is the Streamr Marketplace, which will provide a central hub for data trading, using Streamr’s cryptographic token, DATA. The marketplace is intended to take all sorts of data being transmitted over the network, bundle it, make it searchable for users to buy, and allow the individuals behind the data to be paid for sharing it.

Some of the initial projects are looking at automotive data, and Streamr is already working with Audi and HP Enterprise on how data from a car’s onboard system, such as fuel consumption, location, acceleration and gearing, can be shared and sold. This will allow the marketplace to offer specific data sets, like all the drivers on a particular highway, or all drivers of a specific make and model of car, dependent on whether those drivers choose to share that specific data. The individual can then be remunerated for sharing, rather than a car manufacturer simply taking the data without permission or payment.

The aim is to give the individual the technical means to share data, and give them control over that data, while allowing companies, governments or whoever to buy the data they want, without having to set up deals with each individual, or each car marker, and without having to be concerned about GDPR or other privacy issues, because the consent to use the data will be implicit in the platform. It will allow people to be in control of their data in a meaningful fashion, and will put the onus on organisations to incentivize users to share their data.

For automotive data, this could mean sharing driving data with your insurance company to get lower premiums, or sharing road data with local government to monitor the state of repair of the roads, or sharing data on air quality with an environmental NGO.

“If you are going to get paid, and provided with new services, like insurance in real time, then yes people will interact,” Malik said. “Some people might say ‘this is my data and I don’t want any of it sold to anyone’, so then someone else has to come along and incentivise them to share.”

Streamr completed $30m in crowdfunding almost a year ago, and is continuing with product development, aiming to have the decentralised network architecture set up early this year. It is also conducting industry pilots with technology leaders like HPE and Nokia, and with OSIsoft, a leader in real time data management solutions for industry, which will look at how Streamr could be used by industrial companies to share data among their sectors.

Malik said that only through the decentralised sharing of data through platforms like Streamr will organisations be able to leverage the potential of data-driven solutions, without hitting the issues of complexity and permissions of data.

“If that [digital] world is only based on centralisation, then how are individuals going to respond to that? If you want to take advantage of it, a decentralised open system like this is the best way to do it,” he said.

“There is a real choice here, we do want the benefits of living in a digital economy, where things are producing data, and life is more convenient, smooth and efficient, but on the other hand, when the digital interfaces are everything around you, that is going to create all sorts of issues, and the only way out of it, is to have platforms that are open source, so everyone can see the code, and decentralised, meaning it can’t be shut down or controlled by one central party. That is the only way to do it, or you don’t do it at all.”

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