New data tools to ‘give people back control’

New ways of managing our private information on the internet are to be trialled in a new three-year project, Nesta confirmed this week. The distributed ledger technology behind blockchain is expected to drive much of the innovation.

The location, ownership and control of our personal data online is without doubt a major issue – two in three of us are concerned about what happens to our data. But at the same time most of us seem happy to agree to the terms and conditions of websites without reading them. Free services like Facebook do have a price, and that is data – but most of us seem prepared to accept the trade off without much thought.

Now UK innovation foundation Nesta is starting work on a project that addresses this, looking to give people more control of their data moving forward.

The European Commission-funded ‘DECODE’ project has been established to make tools that put people in control of whether they keep their personal information private or share it for the public good.

icon-sharing-two@2xBy creating and testing new blockchain-based tools, the aim of DECODE – ‘Decentralised Citizen Owned Data Ecosystem’ – is to give individuals more control over their data, helping keep it private or share it for the public good as they see fit.

Nesta, leading the initiative in the UK, says the premise of the project is that the main channels through which we use the internet have been monopolised by a handful of big businesses that do not always serve individuals and communities fairly.  In turn, it says, data that could benefit society is locked away in silos and individuals having limited control over it.

Eddie Copeland, Nesta’s director of government innovation said: “The ongoing litany of data breaches, government surveillance controversies and the monopolisation of personal data by a small number of giant firms is no longer sustainable.

“We need a new way for people to consciously protect and share their data. The potential to do so is huge; not only can individuals feel greater trust in the services and devices they use; they will also be able to share their data to support the growth of new social ventures, improve the functioning of cities and participate more in open, online democratic processes.”

The project will run four public pilots – two in Barcelona and two Amsterdam – to test the new tools and to demonstrate the wider social value that can come as a result of people sharing their data differently.

The distributed ledger technology behind blockchain is expected to drive many of the pilot projects. It enables money, or indeed anything of value, to be exchanged without the need for a middleman. Proof of ownership can be checked automatically and electronically, ensuring trust is built in to each side of a transaction.

The emerging research findings and source code of the DECODE tools, once developed, will be open and freely available on the project website, at

DECODE will be delivered by a consortium of partners – including the Institut Municipal d’Informatica de Barcelona, Eurecat and the University of Catalonia from Spain, Amsterdam City Council, Dyne and the Waag Society in the Netherlands, Politecnico di Torino from Italy, CNRS from France, Arduino from Sweden, and innovation foundation Nesta, Thingful, ThoughtWorks and UCL from the UK.

Illustration: Nesta

Nesta blog: It’s time to start taking control of our personal data seriously.