Case study: Claiming back our data

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Over the next few weeks we will be sharing some case studies of our academic research from across the Bristol Business School. The first case study looks at Professor Glenn Parry’s research on personal data. Written by Jeremy Allen: 

In a world where we are generating more and more data using online maps, on social media and soon in our homes through the Internet of Things (IoT), Professor Glenn Parry wants to help individuals take control of their personal data.

“Our goal is a lofty one: we are trying to revolutionise the world of personal data and change global data business models from company-controlled to personal controlled data,” he says.

The information we give out on a daily basis creates a stream of personal statistics that subsequently becomes an asset for big corporations like Apple or Facebook.

Professor Parry argues that we should at least be able to retain a copy of our data and be in a position to make it work for us. By collating all our data sets in one place, he and other partners have developed the Hub of All Things (HAT). The digital platform can capture a cross-section of all our activities in cyberspace pertaining to shopping habits, photographs, travel modes etc. that can be linked to specific points in time.

“The HAT helps you manage and organise your data, combine it how you want and decide how to share it with others,” says Parry. “HAT will give you back some control of your own data, letting you decide what to share, with whom and how much detail they receive.”

Increasingly, individuals will produce more data due to the IoT, whereby our household appliances are likely to be connected to the internet.

To determine some of the data that the IoT could generate and re-enforce why it is increasingly important for us to control our own information, Professor Parry and colleagues have conducted experiments in their homes, as part of their research.

Taking bathrooms as a place where there are lots of ‘things’ that can generate data, the researchers set up humidity sensors, movement sensors in towels, motion and light sensors, and scanned shampoo bottles regularly to determine how much of its contents had been consumed.

Experiments helped indicate when we shower, for how long, how much water we consume, how often we use towels and how external factors affect all this data.

One area of Professor Parry’s ongoing research with the HAT involves examining how individuals perceive their vulnerability in cyberspace. By analysing how people perceive risk, he has been able to create a measure of this perception. “People give away quite a lot: a large group tends to underestimate the risk, while many others are aware of the risk yet embrace it,” says the academic.

He advises that there are ways to stop giving away our data and that we can therefore turn off a lot of what is broadcast out. One option is to turn off the location setting on our smartphone. Another is to be vigilant when downloading free apps, as by agreeing to terms and conditions we often open up our contacts list or divulge our location to third parties.

“Following the Cambridge Analytica revelations, people are starting to understand how data can be misused but many are still unaware of the dangers. Our research highlights that our information should be in the hands of individuals, and by working together we can create better e-business models,” says Professor Parry.

He and his colleagues are also working on other business models that could bring good to society. For instance, they are looking at how the technology behind cryptocurrencies – the Block Chain – might be used to help achieve the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

“The future doesn’t have to be like Blade Runner, it could be more of a utopian future where technology works with us and could perhaps even stop us polluting the seas and help us live a cleaner, healthier life,” says Professor Parry.

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