Wherever I lay my HAT

The Hub of All Things – or HAT – logo
The Hub of All Things – or HAT – logo

The Hub of All Things (HAT) is on a mission to create a better internet that is better for people and businesses by putting fairer and more efficient Internet of Me spoke to Irene Ng, academic, economist and architect of the HAT to find out more.

Internet of Me: Explain what the HAT is and how it works.

Irene Ng: The easiest way to explain the HAT is to say that it is a private data account plus a private data exchange system. You have a private data account and that is a replacement of a user account for apps and services on the internet. We would like to see a new generation of apps and services where instead of a user account it would be your private data account where both the app and you can get access to the data.

The exchange system along with your personal data account means you will be able to push and pull data across the internet whenever you want – on-demand, real-time sharing with anybody you trust and also getting data from people who want to give it to you.

IoM: So what is the main problem in the world that the HAT solves?

HAT Foundation Chairman Irene Ng
HAT Foundation Chairman Irene Ng

IN: The main prob is economic power. Unless we are in control of our own information – and I don’t just mean our email address and passport numbers and identity stuff, I mean our own information, the words we use, the data we generate, the videos we watch – unless we have that in our reach and in our control it’s very difficult for us collectively to have economic power to be able to steer what is happening in the internet economy.

So if we have our own HATs and they are all distributed, collectively we are in a better bargaining position for how our data is gong to be used on the internet.

IoM: You’ve talked before about creating a new kind of internet and the HAT being based on open source technology and internet protocols. How are these important to eth HAT philosophy?

IN: It’s very important for me that the HAT is something you own. You have to legally own your database – not data, because it’s quite well established that you really have difficulty owning data. But it’s a database of your own and data at rest is within it, and then the legal ownership of the database is important.

It’s important for us because there is a legal framework around ownership which is property. If it is your property in the way your house is your property or your bag is your property, then there is a legal framework that means, for example, that when you die it’s part of your estate, there are ways you can treat it and for young people your data in there is in the guardianship of your parents.

The second issue we have is around being able to share a little or a lot. I might want to share with you just my location between 7 and 9 o’clock in the morning. You can then ping me a discount voucher for a coffee wherever I am. I don’t have to give you my email address and my whole identity. All you want is to sell coffee and I can just give you a bit of data for that.

The data exchange today on the internet is a little broken. Because we have to share data in the way that’s too lumpy – everything comes with an identifier. If you create an ecosystem and exchange where you can share as little or as much as you like with or without identity you can achieve the same thing.

IoM: Before the interview you talked about the idea of changing the internet and that at the moment it works for markets and not so well for us as users and consumers. Can you elaborate on that?

IN: We look at the internet as being too commercial right now. We believe the internet should mirror civil society. In civil society we have government places, community places, private places and commercial places. Well, the internet isn’t like that. On the internet everything is commercial. You’re renting someone’s spaces the moment you get on there. It’s either a Google space, or a WhatsApp space or a Facebook space or an Amazon space. Where is just the public road where I can go and hang out with my friends that’s not policed by a corporation? Where’s my private conversation between me and someone else?

So by building the HAT, which is a distributed system and not centralised, you have your own micro server data account. You will be able to liaise with someone else as a service to service and that makes the internet better because it creates the ability to create private conversations, community conversations, and public conversations as well as commercial conversations.

The marginal cost of duplicating data is really zero

IoM: At the HAT launch event at the Shard in London in May you challenged the front page headline in The Economist that said data is the new oil, suggesting it was more like renewable energy. Is that part of the HAT philosophy?

IN: As an economist, one of the things that always strikes me is that the marginal cost of duplicating data is really zero. You can fill in the form again and again. Why do we still keep filling forms? Why is it when we check into the hotel or go anywhere we keep filling forms? It’s because we don’t have a place of our own where we can put the data and just synchronise for someone to send us the bill and then just delete the data.

I therefore take the analogy that it is much more like renewable energy – I can reuse and reuse my data but only because I am the source. The reason data is the new oil is that it’s seen from the point of view of the corporation which is ‘well there’s lots of oil, I can only use it under certain circumstances and you can’t really reuse it unless you get my permission’. I, however, can reuse my information again and again. So we are trying to correct what the economy really should be on the internet which should be controlled by source.

IoM: Is this idea of a shift a reality of is it just something people working in the personal data arena perceive?

IN: I think in 2018 it will be a reality. We are incubating some 32 startups. They have come to us because they don’t want to build user accounts. They don’t want to build a whole stack and think about personal data containment and the risk and all that. They say can just use the HAT instead.

The HAT is an enabling infrastructure for that to happen but you can choose who provisions the HAT for you. Quite a number of startups are starting to build on this because we actually save them a lot of money and we are much more efficient because once you’ve built on the private data account you just build the service – you don’t have to build all the plumbing behind it.

And – this is really important – you actually have a relationship directly with the user and their data and not with a third party organisation that holds the data.

IoM: That idea of super personalisation and a direct customer relationship is the Holy Grail. Corporations already use our data to try and personalise their offers but it’s not usually on our terms. Do you think businesses will see the value and opportunity in empowering the consumer enough to take control of their data?

IN: I think they do. I don’t blame corporations for grabbing a lot of data. After all, for more than 60 years businesses have been told ‘get to know your customers’. Well, they just took it on and they really know you very well now, and they keep trying to get to know you very well. But they do it in such a way that maybe they ride roughshod over privacy and all sorts of things. Many of them didn’t do it well.

Really getting to know your customer is when your customer is willing to share with you so that you can personalise your offering. Even as a large corporation, what do you have of me? If you are a supermarket you have my buying data but you won’t have much else. So this is actually growing the personal data economy to make companies better than the mechanism they are using right now.

The way we want consumers to win is to say that private data account services are better than non-private services

IoM: The next question was going to be whether a shift in control and agency over personal data would be a push or a pull – a push in the form of some cataclysmic breach or a pull in digital products that are simply better. It sounds like you believe it will be the latter.

IN: Many people ask me what is the outcome you want, ‘what can I do with my HAT?’ The answer we’re trying to get to is we want to be able to say when you have your HAT you can do everything on the internet you can currently do. That means there is a calendar that sits on the private data account, there is messaging that sits on the private data account, there are all kinds of different services. The way we want consumers to win is to say that private data account services are better than non-private services.

If you look at what the internet is right now – these are non-private data account services. They are user accounts set within corporations. We want to be able to compete with them and say private data account services are better because you can mix and match and create different services that are better than the current services out there.

IoM: Will that make the bigger companies wake up to this new opportunity or are they already looking at what startups are doing in this space?

IN: The future internet is going to have a whole lot more data. When the Internet of Things comes into play – your hairdryer is connected, your TV is connected – you get a lot more data. In private data accounts distributed through different people we will be in a position to share more for greater personalisation. Even if you are the largest company in the world you cannot possibly control every single item and device I own. The largest entity that should be able to control it in a distributed way is me. All of me is actually quite small, but collectively we are quite big.

If you think about the corporations like Google or Samsung or any company they should welcome this because with private data accounts they are in a position to say ‘if you could share with me that bit of data I’ll give you this bit of service’ which they can’t say now because they have to keep building.

Instead of everybody building siloed services to grab more of your data lets come together – that’s what the startups and HAT Foundation group does – and say ‘we all benefit when users control their data. All you have to do is ask them for it’.

Irene Ng with Internet of Me editor Simon Carroll
Irene Ng with Internet of Me editor Simon Carroll

IoM: The Big 4 tech giants are often painted as villains – holding vast amounts of data, onerous T&Cs. Is that too simplistic a view. They are, after all, innovators. Could they be part of the solution? Could they use scale to empower and give data back?

IN:This is exactly where I think they have a huge role to play. I don’t think of them as villains. As I said, we have told companies ‘get to know your customer’. They have done that. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with what they’ve done. What they have suffered from is the consequences of getting know your customer and the scale at which they’ve done it. It alarmed people in terms of the scope of data they’ve ended up collecting. In a way if they redistribute it back to ourselves and we share it back to them – Google does great maps, Facebook does great social media, they are constantly improving what they do – but even as a company they can’t swallow up that much data so if you think about how they would look at the future of the personal data economy they would actually benefit from it better because they are poor custodians of our data. While they collect a lot of it they are interested in the services, not really to be custodians.

If we became our own custodians we would use it better. We would be able to will it to the social good and social cause when we are dead, we would be able to combine it and do better things and buy services with it. I think that would be a better world, even for them.

IoM: GDPR is less than a year away. We’re told an earthquake is coming. What do you think of it as a piece of legislation? It must be great platforms like HAT which solve a lot of GDPR problems.

IN: I believe the GDPR is a great piece of legislation, for a few reasons. There’s a lot of ambiguity and that needs to be finessed and refined over time. But I think the most compelling aspect of GDPR is to compel companies who hold our data in their own environments to give access rights back – not give back ownership because it’s nebulous to talk about ownership – but to give me the right to access my own data. That’s where the HAT and private data accounts in our ecosystem will do really well.

Europe is less than a year away from unleashing one of the biggest raw materials that will spawn the next generation of apps. I think it will actually spur innovation. It might not be thought of as such, it’s probably more thought of as a rights issue and fairness issue, but actually I think of it much more as an innovation and opportunity issue both for companies and individuals, and for startups to really build the next generation of the internet.