Will we soon be able to choose what companies know and keep about us?

Social Media

Large companies know more about us than our own mothers. The massive gathering, storing and use of our online data has become commonplace, to such an extent that we have lost control of that data. The Solid project wants to change that. Its ambition? Reform the World Wide Web.

It was Tim Berners-Lee himself, the founder of the web, who came up with the ambitious idea to develop and expand the software platform Solid. Specifically, the goal of the platform is to “reshape” the web, and let the user decide which data he or she allows access to. Ghent University professor Ruben Verborgh is helping him with the technological elaboration of the project. He explains what Solid is, and how it can help change our lives.

What is Solid?

"Solid is a way to take control of our own data. Today we live in a world full of “big data”, but we want a system that works with “linked data”. It means that people and companies can manage their own data. This will allow people to choose where, when and to whom they make that information available."

"In the medium term, we want to give everyone in Flanders his or her own data vault. You can compare this with a bank in which you have money, but here we’re talking about a bank that contains your data. It doesn’t matter whether your money is with BNP Paribas or with ING, you can use your bankcard to pay in any store. That would also be the case with data: you can choose, where and when, and with whom you want to link or share your data."

Why is this reform so important?

"Today companies collect everything they can find out about you. The more, the better. This is typical in a world full of “big data”. It’s a real rat race for data. But much of the information companies collect is irrelevant to them. While on the other hand, a lot of valuable information is lost because we do not store it properly. Just think of address changes, for example. Now you have to submit updates over and over again, and then sometimes your old address resurfaces. Moreover, companies are increasingly coming up against the limits of data privacy. We can now go in one of two directions: refresh the existing system or implement a completely new system. We think Flanders is ready for the latter."

What does that mean for the economy?

“We live in a data-driven economy which means you need continuous streams of data to keep the system running. But it’s important that you don’t just hoard that data and let it corrode. There is a lot of data available, but you also have to use it effectively. In fact, you can compare it with petroleum. You can put new oil in barrels to store it. But that is not the intention: oil must flow. It’s used to run engines."

Ruben Verborgh
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"Small and medium-sized companies have too little data to be able to innovate. They have to buy data from larger companies, which is not always possible. Suppose, for example, that you have an AI startup and you develop a tool to find jobs for a specific type of person. You start without data. So the first thing you need to do is to collect data. Only then can you get going. But what if people who are looking for a job were willing to accept a certain amount of data sharing with your company? Then you wouldn’t have to worry about this aspect and you could focus on your core task. That’s why we say: stop the data race. Give people control over their data so that companies can focus on innovation. In this way all companies, large or small, will have an equal opportunity in the market."

How can you implement Solid in daily life?

"That is of course not easy. You need a number of factors to make something like this work. We are conducting research into these factors at Ghent University. My team is investigating the technological side of the story. How can you ensure that everyone has such a data vault? And how will that work in practice?"

"In addition, there is the research team of Professor Lieven De Marez, which is studying the social aspects. Are the people ready for it? How do we get everyone started with the new technology? Finally, there is also the legal aspect that is being researched at Ghent University: how do we deal with personal data? Where does technology stop and where do legal considerations begin?"

Want to know more

On September 28, the Flemish government and UGent-imec are organizing a themed afternoon on the Solid project with speakers including professor Ruben Verborgh and professor Lieven De Marez, as well as Prime Minister Jan Jambon and Tim Berners-Lee.

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