The Personal Data Locker: A Project Whose Time Has Come

A New Platform for our Digital Lives

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My name is David Siegel. I’m a Silicon Valley entrepreneur. I’ve started 25 companies and written five books on technology and business. In this document, I describe a new nonprofit to create a better future for people around the world.

The Problem: Our Data is Everywhere

Think about all your personal data: your health records, financial information, purchase data, prescriptions, phone calls, travel data, school records, and much more are sitting on servers of large institutions around the world. You don’t have your own data, and whoever has your data has much more power than you think.

This long infographic shows what each large company knows about you. Here are the key points:

We all know that large, monopolistic companies harvest our data, use it, and sell it to others. We know we are the product. It seems free, but it isn’t. We are worth a lot of money to Facebook, Google, and other large companies. They also don’t keep our data safe. In 2018, over 450 billion personal records were stolen or exposed inappropriately.

Solution: The Personal Data Locker

Instead, we could create the personal data locker and capture our own data for our own personal use. I have been writing about this for 20 years and outlined much of it in my book, Pull. Ten years ago, I made a short vision video:

The key components are:

This means you are responsible for your own identity. Microsoft, the W3C, and others are coming together around the DID standard, which could be the foundation of identity for this century.

You will keep a record of all your travel, likes, comments, photos, videos, appointments, doctor visits, diagnostics, prescriptions, classes, grades, parking tickets, purchases, reading, people you meet, conversations, and much more. You own it. You control it. You use it for your benefit.

You’ll use software to accumulate, organize, and use your own data. These are your personal digital assistants. Today, we have Siri, Alexa, and Google. They seem free, but they are actually quite expensive. They work for their companies, not for us. This is the wrong model. You want to have your own software working for you on your own data on your own terms.

In the world I want to create, there is an open market for personal digital assistants that can use your data to help you best. If you don’t like your assistant, fire it and hire another one to work with your data. This open-source playing field gives consumers choices that are fundamentally different than the monopolistic solutions we have today.

Apps are traps. Apps keep our personal data on private-company servers. When we have proper, legal digital ownership of all our goods, and services are represented by digital tokens, markets become much more liquid. This is what I call the world of offers. It’s meant to replace apps, which haven’t scaled and are bottlenecks and traps for data and poor management of assets. We can transform apps into services. For more on the world of offers, read The Pillar Project Gray Paper.

Today, large social networks are centralized. People are used to “free and easy,” but more and more we are beginning to understand the true price. How much do you trust FaceBook? I think you should own your conversations, your posts, your photos, your likes and shares. You should be able to retract them any time you like and select the people you want to share with.

You should share your data with companies only as needed. You should give permission to use your data only for a very limited time or a single purchase. As you gather and control your genomic data, health records, and many more details, you will need help to manage all the permissions and sharing with others. Every time you share data it should be a two-sided contract with obligations on both sides. I have written about this.

YouTube’s algorithm now determines what kind of content creators make. The YouTube business model is to sell ad impressions to millions — it isn’t very different from the interruption-model of advertising on TV. Educating consumers is as important as creating a new business model for content.

To level the playing field, no single company should own the infrastructure of any industry. That limits innovation, because you need permission to do anything on the platform (e.g., Apple’s app store or Amazon’s infrastructure). I want to show the way by starting with small pilot projects with the power to transform industries and create a new era of competition and innovation. It must be governed by a non-profit foundation, so no company can own it.

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Next, I will give examples of how this could work. In these scenarios, assume you have all your data going back many years.

Social Networking

It’s true that Facebook has all the users, but it also has all their data and is losing trust among many of them. We can all agree that Facebook should not be the dominant owner of our private data, yet many challengers have come and gone. In my view, the only solution that has a chance is one where:

  • You collect your own data
  • You own your own data
  • You pay to store and safeguard your own data
  • You use your own data to benefit yourself
  • You employ software that makes it all easy
  • You control the rights to your content

I believe this kind of platform can become viral because a) it gives people what they want, b) it costs them less in the long run, and c) many service providers will come to this platform to make money. So, while the platform is open-source, there are many ways for third parties to offer products and services on top (similar to WordPress).

The Pull Marketplace

I describe the world of offers in my book, Pull:

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Today, millions of products are listed actively on millions of web sites. We use search engines to find them. In the world of Pull, all your products have online digital birth certificates, and you maintain the data for them. If you want to sell something, just lower the offer price and offers will find you. This is the world of passive commerce — it flows the opposite way to the supply-driven approach we use today. It’s a switch from pushing products and services down the supply chain to pulling them as needed, just in time. This is semantic search — similar to the way we search on Kayak.com.

Your Personal Digital Doctor

Would you rather have IBM Watson as your personal physician, or a nice person wearing a lab coat with degrees on her wall? I would much rather have Watson. Watson has read every paper in every field, understands that many papers are highly biased and many are worthless, has access to tons of data on many conditions, and readily changes its mind when it learns something new. In contrast, your doctor sees a very small number of patients, doesn’t stay very up to date on research, has little idea about outcomes, and is mostly interested in maximizing his own career. I’d rather hire and pay Watson to be my primary care physician and then use the services of the medical system to do what Watson says. And, if a better algorithm comes out, I would gladly switch from Watson to a better solution.

This is the idea of the personal data locker. Your primary-care bot would work with you to optimize your health. It would use many other specialist bots to help you with dermatology, eye care, various kinds of diseases, sports medicine, travel medicine, cardiology, neurology, radiology, etc. All of these bots have access to your personal data. You pay them. Any time you want, you can fire them.

Of course, you can get opinions from doctors and others you see and feed that information in, so your primary-care bot can best advise you. But if that bot says you should or shouldn’t do something, even if it’s against your doctor’s advice, you should probably go with your bot’s advice. It has access to all your data and all the other data it can see from various databases. It works for you. If you fire it, all your data stays and the new primary-care bot comes in to take over. And there’s no reason to just have one — you could have five different bots and see what they all say as a group.

Your Personal Financial Advisor

Today, the law requires intermediaries to hold your financial assets for you in most countries. So in this case, you will transfer all your assets to a single registered broker and then manage everything from there. Your personal data locker has your entire real-time balance sheet and every transaction, so it knows everything about your financial situation. It’s your data, you store it and you manage it. You can go to the bot store and hire any number of financial bots to manage your assets. The list may include insurance, long-term investments, short-term, cash management, credit, funds, tax advice, risk management, foreign-exchange, etc.

Most of these will be algorithm-based, so you just hire your own bots and they will trade for you. You will probably want a master portfolio manager bot to manage all your specialist bots. And you will have a financial-advisor bot to help you with your financial goals. You will probably have a comparison bot that helps make sure your bots are trading and investing for you with up-to-date strategies and is always looking for better specialists.

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Your Career and Education Coach

To understand how bad the situation in education is, I recommend reading Bryan Caplan’s book, The Case Against Education. I don’t advocate trying to fix or improve education; I believe we need to replace it entirely with something more effective.

The answer is — your digital assistant working with your personal data locker! I believe learning and then doing is over. We have to learn by doing. We have to interweave doing and learning starting as early as possible. I have ideas about primary and secondary school education, but here I’ll focus on people who are 18 years old and older.

The model is simple: work and learn, work and learn, work and learn.

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Your personal digital assistant knows more about you than anyone. So your digital assistant also becomes your career coach, tutor, and guide to future knowledge and success in business. It’s all zipped together. The goal is to set up a pattern of learning what you need to learn as you need it, which helps you stay relevant in the economy during your entire life.

How this would work: You talk with your assistant about your goals, and it finds options and brings them to you. Together, you discuss them and choose whatever looks best at that time. For example, you may need work now to pay your rent, but you also want a career in film production. So your digital assistant tries to help you get either the most money with the skills and credentials you have or a relevant job in the film industry. Since everything is machine-to-machine, your digital assistant goes out and tries to negotiate the best job for you.

You may want to learn about anthropology or biology just for fun, in which case your assistant will help you do that using many available online resources, some of which are paid and many of which are free. This would not be related to work, it would be a hobby, though it may figure into future job choices. As your digital coach knows more and more about you, you can start to trust it to bring you new and interesting things to learn. If a better coach becomes available, you can easily switch. The new one learns all about you by mining your past data.

I envision learning resources to be “atomized” so they can be consumed and learned in many different ways under different circumstances, and your personal coach will use all those resources to help you skill up. Everything is unbundled and “a la carte,” rather than structured as a semester or even a course. Two good examples are Marginal University and Kahn Academy.

I think more and more, the project will become the basic unit of work. We will have markets for people to collaborate with software to work on projects. (I believe collaborative projects and simulations should also form the basis of primary and secondary education.)

In my view, the future for anyone over eighteen is 80 percent work and 20 percent learning on an as-needed basis. There won’t be any law school or architecture school or degrees in physics or chemistry. You’ll go get a job and the job will pay you for the skills you have. Your employer will expect you to learn and improve, no matter what your age. You might dedicate a day a week or a few hours a day — whatever you need to keep improving your skills and tackling new challenges.

People born today will live much longer than previous generations. We will work and learn this way well into our 80s.

I hope we will mostly do away with professional licenses and overconstraining regulation so markets can just solve problems dynamically. Studying for and getting a certification, license, or degree means much less than we think it does. I would work hard to educate employers to adopt this new paradigm and forget about credentials and signals. The days of learning first and doing second are over. It has to be hand-in-hand, driven by doing, constantly adapting and improving your skill set. Your personal assistant will also review your skills from time to time to help keep you up to date on the latest methods and research. Simulations will play an important role.

You, and everyone else, will be augmented by technology. This is great. We will all have access to tremendous resources. Machines will do most of the repetitive work. Humans will do nonroutine physical and cognitive work, alongside our robot and AI helpers. Sometimes we will help them. Anything we need to learn we will get by working with our personal career coaches (until we can get a neural upgrade).

Your personal coach is also your professional partner. Working together, you can do much more than you can do alone. It doesn’t just help you learn, it helps you get your job done.

Your personal assistant learns how you learn best and gives you what you need to achieve your goals. You don’t sit through classes or do homework unless you and your personal assistant decide that’s what’s best for you. There will always be new ways of learning, and your personal assistant will continually adapt to help you get where you want to go.

A New Nonprofit

I am perhaps one of the few people in the world best positioned to create, launch, and grow this platform. In fact, in 2017, I raised $21 million to do it. The Pillar Project is alive and well and continues to improve its world-class crypto-wallet, adding more and more identity and personal-data features as they go. I founded the project, raised the money, and was the first CEO, joined by a group of enthusiastic team members and supporters. Pillar is an open-source nonprofit Swiss foundation. I left the project earlier this year to move to the USA and focus on creating something even bigger. Pillar is a great project, and I expect to collaborate with them, but the crypto/blockchain market is too limited.

I am as qualified as anyone on earth to realize the promise of personal data. I am ready to build the dream I laid out in this essay in 2015.

The new nonprofit doesn’t exist yet. It can be based anywhere. The goal is to put the right foundation in place for massive adoption later.

Economics

The goal is to change the world significantly. You can’t do it by brute force, and you can’t do it for free. You need smart people, good software, a growing community, and a lot of messaging.

Over the next ten years, this project will require more than $100 million in funding. I expect to always be raising money. I hope to get an initial grant of $20 million from a founding partner and use it to build both software and a community. The goal is to delight customers and get early traction, so we are well positioned to raise more money.

We can also start a company similar to Automattic by the founder of WordPress. It does hosting and charges a minimal amount. The goal is to get people used to paying about $20 per year to host and back-up their own encrypted personal data. There will be many more services build around this, like back-up recovery, identity management, key management, custodianship, bots, games, and much more.

I would like to raise a venture fund to encourage innovation on the platform.

This project creates jobs. Many companies will flourish in this ecosystem and provide needed services. People will need tools, products, and services to convert their offers into our formats and handle the business that results. The more customers we get from Facebook, the more the platform stands up on its own and becomes self-sustaining, like Linux or Android.

Next step would be to sketch out a budget and have conversations, so I can listen to potential donors and learn how they can help us create this much-needed platform.

Relevant Projects

The projects below are worth understanding. They are relevant to this effort. The goal is to unify and bring all these efforts together and bring awareness to consumers that they have a choice. There are challenges. We have to make simple use cases easy for consumers to adopt and gather their own data. I would like to create the marketplace where many many projects can flourish, where we can build and adopt data standards, and where consumers can assemble their personal data lockers in a modular fashion, one use-case at a time.

Note that this project has nothing to do with “monetizing your own personal data.” It’s about using your personal data. I explain why you shouldn’t monetize your personal data in an essay called Ad Agency of One.

Open.ai has raised over $1 billion so far. They have also launched a private company to build on their platform. Please see their web site to get a sense of the scale.

Human Brain Project in Europe’s goal is to bring all brain researchers together for faster collaboration and build simulations.

Pillar Project is a crypto-wallet that has the potential to help people take ownership of their data. They are starting to work with cities on log-in and other self-sovereign solutions.

The Solid Project, by Tim Berners Lee, inventor of the Worldwide Web, is all about self-sovereign ownership of identity and data.

Open Personal Data Store project at MIT.

Digi.me — personal data store.

Personium — an open-source project.

MyDex — personal data store.

Diaspora, which started life with a crowdfund, has built a lot of pieces of the messaging puzzle. They are focusing on social connections.

Hub of All Things is a system that lets you store your personal data.

The DID open-source identity standard.

Jobs to be Done

In too many projects, technology leads to a dead-end — both because they solve the wrong problem and because they don’t focus enough on communication and customer acquisition. This project will be all about listening and encouraging entrepreneurs to find small wins. Facebook, Google, Apple, and Microsoft are huge. The only way we beat them is by putting something new and better in front of consumers and getting them to try it. Here are the things we need to do in the first six months:

  • Raise money.
  • Build a community.
  • Build a communications team, a brand, and a web site.
  • Create good content explaining what the project is and why it’s needed.
  • Start communicating and informing consumers.
  • Create one or more events where people can exchange ideas and showcase their work.
  • Find a CTO.
  • Publish our technology architecture and road map.
  • We need interoperable data standards as much as we need new systems and platforms.
  • Incentivize people to start building small use-case-driven solutions. I think I would do this by offering prizes rather than just contracting out. I would want it to be competitive and encourage people to be entrepreneurial. We want lots of pieces to come fit together.
  • Continue to raise money, build the brand, and bring more projects together.

To that end, I have started a Telegram group you can join now to help us get started. Several of the other groups also have good communities.

Summary

This project is much needed. All the smaller projects don’t have critical mass. Venture capitalists are afraid to fund startups that challenge huge corporations like Facebook. If private companies own all our data, we will have no control over our lives. Cities and governments will keep all our data, and that can be misused. This century is going to be about autonomy and interaction, not centralized control.

This is what I’ve been talking about for twenty years. There are many challenges. I plan to win using a secret weapon — a growing community of people using an open-source, own-your-own-data platform that is solely for their benefit. No advertising. I will spend more on marketing than on development, simply because history has shown that spending too much time on product and not enough time listening to customers is a recipe for failure.

I’m in the exploratory phase now, looking for funders, partners, contributors, and connectors. If you are interested to learn more, please join our telegram group. If you can help with funding or raising money, please contact me.

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David Siegel is a serial entrepreneur in Washington, DC. He is the founder of the Pillar Project and 2030. He is the author of The Token Handbook, Open Stanford, The Culture Deck, Climate Curious, and The Nine Act Structure. He gives speeches to audiences around the world — see his speaker page if you would like him to speak at your next event. His full body of work is at dsiegel.com.

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Provocateur, professional heretic, slayer of myths, speaker of truthiness to powerfulness, and defender of the Oxford comma.

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