Data ownership

In conversation with @euan this morning, I was reminded of a time when I was probably as near to putting my fist through a computer monitor at work as I ever have been. I was having to go through the emotional task of updating my HR records through a “self-service” system to change my marital status from “married” to “divorced” as the decree absolute had recently come through drawing a curtain on my first marriage. On submitting the change, I almost immediately received an automated email informing me that my change in status was awaiting approval from HR.

How very dare they.

It wasn’t enough that the Family Court in London had passed the divorce. Some jumped up little twerp in HR felt that they needed to give a rubber stamp to what was, I had thought, the culmination of a tortuous three-year episode in my life. I don’t think I have had (or will ever have) a moment of feeling completely and utterly that IT WAS MY EFFING DATA FOR ME TO DO WITH WHAT I WANTED.

I’ve calmed down a lot in the years since, but am fascinated by these issues of what data is, and who owns it. Recent news stories about O2 (including mobile phone numbers in HTTP Headers from mobile browsers), Facebook (the timeline exposing your innermost past history) and Google (changes to their privacy policies and greater cross-service transmission of data) have all probed around the issues of data, data privacy and data ownership. There’s a strong part of me, though, that takes Don Tapscott’s view that in the age of the internet everything is public, so in a world where we are all “naked”, you had better be buff.

Ownership about data that is about us, though, is an interesting thing. Do we really have a right to know everything that is recorded about us, and if we do, will it negatively impact on the ability of professionals and services to provide an adequate service to us?

In hindsight, the data that my employer held about my marital status was not related actually to whether I was married or not, but was much more a flag that comprised one of many data items that impacted upon my tax status. I took it completely the wrong way, because I was (maybe understandably) somewhat emotionally sensitive at the time.

There has been lots of talk in the world of healthcare that one potential lever to help improve the provision of healthcare services would be to give patients (ie us) complete ownership of the health data that is “ours”, and there are a number of start-ups looking to provide such health data vault services. I wonder, actually, if that would make any great improvement in the endless rounds of information gathering that doctors and nurses seem to inflict upon patients in the course of delivering healthcare services?

Putting aside the way that transparency of patient data to the patient would reduce healthcare professional’s ability to record salient information (like “hypochondriac”) for other healthcare professionals to take note of, doctors and nurses have their own professional integrity to protect. As such, the act of gathering information from patients is often a crucial part of their service, and recording that information is as much their data about their job as it is our data about us.

Making everything transparent and recorded can result in two outcomes. A blissful nirvana in which everyone knows everything that they need to know at all times, or a side-noted dystopia where everyone has a vast set of records kept secretly on the side for them to actually perform their roles. Whilst the concept of “a single version of the truth” is alluring, the complex reality of most modern settings is that every “truth” has multiple versions, all of which as valid as each other but to different people. Simplification and transparency can often result in anything but.

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