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It’s the context, stupid

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Doc Searls was asked about the last three paragraphs of this post by Daniel Goleman in connection with VRM.

The singular force that can drive this transformation of every manmade thing for the better is neither government fiat nor the standard tactics of environmentalists, but rather radical transparency in the marketplace. If we as buyers can know the actual ecological impacts of the stuff we buy at the point of purchase, and can compare those impacts to competing products, we can make better choices. The means for such radical transparency has already launched. Software innovations now allow any of us to access a vast database about the hidden harms in whatever we are about to buy, and to do this where it matters most, at the point of purchase. As we stand in the aisle of a store, we can know which brand has the fewest chemicals of concern, or the better carbon footprint. In the Beta version of such software, you click your cell phone’s camera on a product’s bar code, and get an instant readout of how this brand compares to competitors on any of hundreds of environmental, health, or social impacts. In a planned software upgrade, that same comparison would go on automatically with whatever you buy on your credit card, and suggestions for better purchases next time you shop would routinely come your way by email.

Such transparency software converts shopping into a vote, letting us target manufacturing processes and product ingredients we want to avoid, and rewarding smarter alternatives. As enough of us apply these decision rules, market share will shift, giving companies powerful, direct data on what shoppers want — and want to avoid — in their products.

Creating a market force that continually leverages ongoing upgrades throughout the supply chain could open the door to immense business opportunities over the next several decades. We need to reinvent industry, starting with the most basic platforms in industrial chemistry and manufacturing design. And that would change every thing

The article seems to imply that the data is out there in a form or format provided via some centralised source. My immediate reaction was that is not how the social web or the Live Web works: a) data is generated by anyone and everyone and b) it’s messy and the context emergent.

Technology and tools should serve us better and help us, as individuals, to filter and structure that information. Somehow, even in the best case scenario, I don’t see everything on tap from a unified source. Or digested, which is an uncomfortable implication that leaps out of the piece at me.

For example, assessing environmental or health impact of anything is subject to years, decades even, of debate, controversy, lobbying, vested interest, political play… and so it seems to me that the only way I can get information clear enough for making decisions is to ’subscribe’ to a particular view via sources promoting it. Of course, I can get a more balanced take on everything these days by finding alternative views somewhere on the web but I am not sure I want to stand in the supermarket, trying to follow a potentially heated and complicated online debate about the impact of the washing liquid I am about to put in my basket. Can technology speed up and simplify this process to the point where it becomes practical, without losing context for delibration in the process? That is one of the questions I ask myself whenever I come across yet another tool to help us search, compare, aggregate or match information online.

That said, information about nutrients and other non-controversial data of interest to me is easy enough to provide and sadly, this is where most vendors do fall short of what’s possible with existing technology. The operative word here is non-controversial, which is the trojan horse of any implementation of such resource(s). I mean that even what is meant to be gathering of ‘encyclopedic’ knowledge can be controversial at times. Trying to do that with live streams of information means that the checks and balances must reside in the context, not the source itself.

At the more fundamental level, the web and information technology made data cheap. It is the context to data that got expensive, in time and social interactions. On the web the best context costs you time spent browsing and researching and/or time spent cultivating a quality network to supply you with context as you need it. Here I elaborate:

The web has removed physical limitations on space. Data was expensive to create, store and move around and now it is not. This made room for context, which is becoming at least as important as the data. In fact, it is what make data and information the skeleton, giving shape to the flesh and skin but it is no longer the whole body and finish. The important thing is that context can be provided only by a human mind. It cannot be automated – when creating or absorbing it.

Update: The Guardian advert making similar point with regard to media and interpretations of ‘facts’ one sees.




It comes down to whether you prefer context to be provided by:

  1. automated algorithms a la Google and the thousands aggreation sites,
  2. trusted sources including vendors, manufacturers, even third parties and intermediaries, or
  3. your network of friends aka social network

The answer is obvious.

It depends! We use all three at different points in our information gathering, sharing and exchange and transactions. The challenge for VRM is to understand advantages and disadvantages of all three and encourage development of tools that give me, the individual user or customers, the best of all three.

My bet is on no.3. I want to help individuals to capture both data and context on their own terms. This will give rise to another layer of knowledge that serves both the individual and his network. For example, I want to collect data about my shopping, with my own comments and with sources of information useful to me. I want to have pictures of products I have bought, links to reviews by others and my own, comments by friends in my network, record of interactions with the vendors and third parties etc etc. I want it in a place I can further analyse it and share it based on my privacy requirements.

With time, all this can become a source of better understanding of my own behaviour and preferences, and, with practice, a better negotiating position in future transactions. In other words, I will be the most authoritative source of my own history, with data, information and knowledge about me.

And that might change everything.

Young Girl-Old Woman illusion
Young Girl-Old Woman Illusion


Bonus link: TED talk Chris Jones Picturing excess

Ownership of data, privacy policies and other VRM creatures

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Here are some thoughts based on what I posted to the Project VRM mailing list on the discussion about data ownership:

The ownership of data, whatever that means, is merely a starting point of VRM and our attempts to redress the balance of power between vendors and customers. I might volunteer information – to me that means I share it on my own terms – but I also need the ability to establish and
maintain relationships. For that I (others may not) need and want
the following ‘functionality’:

  1. take charge of my data (content, relationships, transactions, knowledge),
  2. arrange (analyse, manipulate, combine, mash-up) it according to my needs and preferences and
  3. share it on my own terms
  4. whilst connected and networked on the web.

That’s what I mean when I talk about turning the individual into a platform, etc etc.

This does not happen by creating a database or a data store, however personal. Store implies passive and static, even with some sort of distribution. The objective is equipping individuals with analytical and other tools to help them understand themselves better and give them an online spring board to relationships with others (in VRM context this includes vendors).

I think it’s the user who should define the nature of the data stored/shared/analysed and what data is called what – whether confidential or premium or whatever. The crucial point is being able to share it (as well as do all sorts of groovy things with it, independently of third party and without the data being hijacked, er, harvested by third parties in the process.)

In the spirit of user-driven-ness, it should be the user who determines the ‘policies’ by which his or her data is managed and shared. I don’t see why they need to be standard(ised) as my sharing preferences and tolerance are a matter of my policy* – just like security and privacy are policies, not systems, i.e. what’s secure or private to me is not necessarily the same to you and vice versa.

What happens after information/data/whatever is shared is partly provenance of the law but mostly of a relationship I have with those the data is shared with… The main issue with the latter is that it can become meaningful only if the user is the most authoritative source of his or her data. Hence I call the means of doing this the Mine!

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*My take on privacy is that it is a policy of the individual, not in a sense of privacy policy for the individual selected from a given selection, in the style of Creative Commons. Huge difference. For instance, I have a policy about who I let into my house. I don’t need to display it on my doors or attach it to my address or business cards. It is far more convenient and flexible for me to decide there and then, when someone’s knocking at the door. It is my implicit privacy policy that kicks in. Sure, I don’t want junk mail or door-to-door salesmen but just because I can display notices to that effect, doesn’t mean that is the way to deal with the rest of the humankind. So online, it is about creating tools that help the individual control the data to the point that he/she decides practically and directly who gets to see what – without a third party or intermediary…

cross-posted from VRM Hub

People make shoes, not money…

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Peter Drucker’s insight expanded by JP:

People aren’t interested in medical records, they’re interested in getting well, and staying well. People aren’t interested in bills and receipts, they’re interested in knowing that they did what they said they will do, or that they received what they expected to receive. People aren’t interested in financial statements, they’re interested in what they can do as a result of the security that income and savings and insurance and pensions. People aren’t interested in TV or radio schedules, they’re interested in watching things and listening to things. People aren’t interested in share prices and market movements, they’re interested in the things they can do as a result of performing their jobs well. It’s not the information that matters, but what we can do as a result.

Worth remembering when designing any tool for people to help them do something useful.

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