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The great IoT data ownership debate

IoT is all about the data, but who owns that data? A panel at MIT Connected Things took a look at this question and found it was a tricky one to answer.

Who owns the troves of data created in the vast internet of things landscape -- is it the person who created it? The manufacturer whose sensors collected it? The company whose platforms aggregated and analyzed it?

IoT data ownership is a controversial topic -- one that even the experts are still debating.

Whether the data originated with a consumer using a product, with sensors on a machine at a factory or on crates of crops picked in a field, the question remains: Whose data is it? There is no standard, agreed-upon IoT data ownership model in place to clarify.

Among all the questions and nuance, a panel at the recent MIT Connected Things conference in Boston could agree, however, that while a clear answer will take work, it's time to set the story straight.

"We need a fundamental rethinking about who owns the data," said John Licciardello, managing director of ecosystem development fund at the IOTA Foundation. "My opinion is the people who produce the data own the data. It's their data, and they're free to sell it if they want. It's important to rethink who data really belongs to and allow people who produce that data to be in charge of where it is."

Beyond that, said moderator Makarand "Mak" Joshi, director of product management at Schneider Electric, consumers need to understand how their data will be used. "Do you have the right to use it any way you want? Or are there constraints in terms of how you can use the data and what you can do after you use the data, for example, from the data that you derived based on my data. Because that data ownership is not clear."

Dennis Groseclose, president and CEO of TransVoyant, agreed with Licciardello.

"I firmly believe the generator of the data owns it," he said. TransVoyant, he added, pays for the data it feeds into its platform, which then provides supply chains the insights needed to increase visibility into processes, predict repairs and avoid issues such as downtime.

MIT Connected Things panel debating IoT data ownership
The panel at MIT Connected Things 2018. L-R: Dennis Groseclose, John Licciardello, Peter Mehring, Gavin Nicol, Melanie Nuce and Mak Joshi.

However, not all companies pay for the data they use, especially when it comes to consumer data. Here, said Melanie Nuce, senior vice president of corporate development at GS1 US, it is critical for manufacturers to make clear how a consumer's information will be collected, used and shared. And, she said, users need to be offered a clear opt-out strategy.

But Nuce also noted that the data not collected from end users is making the IoT data ownership question even trickier, because there are so many sources of IoT data.

"I think we have to look at alternative sources for data creation," Nuce said. "In the supply chain in particular, certain people think they own all the data and conversations. But when you talk about decentralization and democratization, your data is going to come from sources you never thought it could before."

Peter Mehring, CEO at Zest Labs Inc., echoed this sentiment.

"The supply chain is one example where, even though a lot of people think they own the data, you're tracking a product. And who owns that product is a good reflection of who owns the data at that time," he said.

But even this isn't always the clear-cut answer, he added. In the case of Zest Labs, a fresh food supply chain monitoring company, there are the farmers who plant, grow and harvest the crops. The farmers then sell those crops to wholesalers or manufacturers of derivative food products, who then either sell the end product to grocery stores or restaurants. Yet, there are also the truck drivers in possession of the product and its data, transporting the crops from farm to processor to end location, as well as others who are in physical possession of said product, even if for a short period of time. Mehring wondered, do all these pieces of the puzzle have a part to play in IoT data ownership model?

Everyone wants some value out of the data, he said, "But the question is, how do you share that data ownership? There has to be equal value."

It's important to rethink who data really belongs to and allow people who produce that data to be in charge of where it is.
John Licciardellomanaging director of ecosystem development fund, IOTA Foundation

Of course, equal value in data is hard to measure. Data might be anything from measuring a user's smart lighting preferences to adjusting a thermostat automatically based on room occupancy in a meeting room to collecting data from medical wearables that will help doctors diagnose patients to sensors identifying a potential failure before a sold-out 747 takes off the runway.

And just as hard as the value of data is to measure, so, too, is sharing the data.

"I think we have an opportunity to somehow identify quality of data, the applicability of the data and then go back to a marketplace where this information can be openly shared and consumed," Joshi said.

Yet, not everyone is going to be open to sharing -- or trusting, Nuce said. "It's a tough conversation to have with supply chain practitioners, who are very, 'It's about my four walls,'" she said. "We're talking about trustless environments and crowdsourcing of data. I think that's going to create unique marketplace opportunities but also give incumbent B2B players some really interesting use cases about how to better leverage data."

This sort of marketplace cannot flourish, however, unless sharing is accompanied by certainty that data will be shared responsibly. Users must be able to trust that data will be protected. There must be assurances that data will be private -- or at least scrubbed of any personally identifiable information.

"Those trust relationships between entities evolve over time," said Gavin Nicol, CTO at blockchain company Context Labs, adding that while there is a technical aspect of IoT data ownership, "there's an absolute social component to it. We have to recognize and deal with that first."

Groseclose agreed.

"It's not a technical problem," he said. "This is a policy and what-kind-of-business-you-are-running use case problem. A how-do-you-run-your-business, do-you-believe-data-is-owned-by-the-source, do-you-handle-it-correctly kind of problem."

This was last published in April 2018

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