Faith in Services, Trust in Data

Moleskine Concept Diagram 1

Earlier this week Google announced Keep, their new service for quickly storing notes from your phone and online. As others have pointed out, it’s similar to the popular Evernote. Feature comparisons aside, the launch of new services providing common, even essential, access to my information highlights a disconcerting trend.

Faith in Services

Underlying these product decisions is the manifestation of the products that we use. Historically we purchased physical media that we would hold and use as much as we wanted. Despite a company going out of business, ending a product or even upgrading the version we could choose to keep using the product as we had originally acquired and intended. Whether that was Word Perfect or Windows 95, we were in control.

With the advent and ubiquity of connectivity and the Internet, we have become more reliant on services - popularly referred to as The Cloud. There are numerous benefits to this architecture such as scalability, reliability, accessibility, and maintainability. Users can access information from almost any device whenever they need it without worrying about location, versions, or upgrades.

Consequently we put our faith in the service and the trust that there is connection to the internet, the service will be working, that our information is not leaked or shared, and even that the company or product continues to exist. We are now reliant on decisions for which we have little or no control.

Reality of Providers

Evernote has a vision to create a 100-year company, a nearly unique perspective for a new information technology company. It is the kind of pledge that instills a confidence that considers building a long-term relationship with users and exhibiting through products and services.

By contrast, invested and publicly traded companies have a fiduciary responsibility to maximize profits and increase shareholder value. They are legally required to change their products and business to contiuosly get the most money possible. Users are not shareholders and as such are beholden to the decisions to improve revenue. This is not bad per se, but can have consequences in products that live or are shutdown that may seem arbitrary to users.

Google is well known for this behavior, as recently in shutting down Google Reader, though even more relatedly the Keep-similar closing of Google Notebook that was part of a regular “spring cleaning”.

Beyond mere existence of these services we are still reliant on the stability of the service provider. The recent launch of SimCity was plagued with service failures due to scaling and security. And there are many more intentional service related restrictions, particular if the service provider is a hardware manufacturer with clear incentives to lock you into their physical platform.

Trust in Data

The point is that we must realize the vitalness of protecting and accessing our data. Whether my personal notes, email, photos, business plans, or any other information that I have, it is imperative that we retain ownership and rights to the underlying data. Users should be able to hold their data with permission to access, use and reuse regardless of future business decisions.

Services are a value-add. They make my data more useful and perform amazing capacity such as character recognition, entity extraction, geocoding, analysis, and recommendations. But these cannot come at the detriment of control and access to the information that exists independent of a particular product.

Consumers are relatively new to technology, and there is a constant flow of marketing, features, and new products to try. These are easily appealing and exciting while overlooking to the potential implications of investing into a particular service. I hope the culture evolves to where access to the data is not an esoteric or unrelated conversation but is a forthright requirement of any new service.

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About the Author

Andrew Turner is an advocate of open standards and open data. He is actively involved in many organizations developing and supporting open standards, including OpenStreetMap, Open Geospatial Consortium, Open Web Foundation, OSGeo, and the World Wide Web Consortium. He co-founded CrisisCommons, a community of volunteers that, in coordination with government agencies and disaster response groups, build technology tools to help people in need during and after a crisis such as an earthquake, tsunami, tornado, hurricane, flood, or wildfire.