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Henrik Chulu

The humble beginnings of a data revolution

Photo: Christian Buggedei

In the future, the massive amounts of personal data that fuels the digital world will live with the users, not with giant corporations.

Christian Buggedei dreams of having his own digital butler powered by the technology he is helping give birth. As product owner at polypoly, he oversees the journey that the company's core product, the polyPod, is taking from an ideal concept to a critical infrastructure for European businesses.

“My favorite feature is really that it will enable my personal assistant AI,” he says.

Virtual assistants, such as Amazon's Alexa, Microsoft's Cortana, Apple's Siri and Google's eponymous Assistant, have until now been based on the collection of huge amounts of user data, to power it's natural language processing algorithms. And when in use, they often send recordings of their users' voices to be stored on the companies' servers, in violation of privacy laws.

“In the future, with the polyPod, I'll have a piece of software that enables my AI butler to just anticipate my needs and wants without sacrificing my privacy. The hallmark of a classical butler is their discretion. Right now, if I want to recreate this with computers I need to spread my data around to who knows where,” says Christian Buggedei.

Share algorithms, not user data

If Christian Buggedei’s dream of a discrete digital butler, who tends to your needs but cares about your privacy is to be realised, a new way of managing user data is needed, one that puts the user at the centre. The polyPod is meant to empower users by giving them an actual choice of who can make use of their data. It is a revolutionary model of data storage and processing.

“The main purpose of the polyPod is to gather and keep track of all your personal data, including those things that are deeply personal, that you do not want to share. If an algorithm is run on that data, it can help predict things about you.”

Making sure that all personal data lives on the user's own devices, precludes the central processing of the data, that has become the norm with cloud computing. Instead, polypoly reverses this relationship.

With the polyPod, instead of mining personal data for marketing insight in the data centres of technology giants and completely out of control of the users themselves, all the data that is currently gathered at scale by corporations will reside locally on the user's own devices.

“Companies that want to run algorithms on personal data, will send these algorithms, which we call features, to your polyPod or the the polyPods of millions of users, where the algorithms run, derive some insights from the data, and then report only those insights back. So for example, if it's a media recommendation algorithm, the algorithm does not report back what you watch and what kind of person you are, it just reports which movie to stream next,” says Christian Buggedei.

Not having to store increasing amounts of personal data helps companies substantially reduce the costs of data storage and processing, as well as legal compliance for data protection. At the same time, it increases the quality of the data they are able to run their algorithms on.

“Their algorithms get potential access to all your data in an already structured and linked format and it's more accurate because it's your personal data,” says Christian Buggedei.

A magic mirror to see your digital shadow

The goal of polypoly is to have the polyPod widely adopted as a standard for data protection for companies across the European continent. However, the long-term vision for the polyPod begins with much humbler roots. The first iteration of the polyPod will neither have the full functionality or the many features that Christian Buggedei envisions.

In a sense, the first product will be a magic mirror through which the user can see their digital shadow, that is all the personal data that is collected about them as they participate in the digital world.

“What polypoly will do is show the user the actual size of their digital shadow and compare the companies that take care of your data with those that don't. We will do this in a personalised way based on your own data by making it explorable. You can go through your data and draw conclusions for yourself about yourself, about things you were unaware of before,” says Christian Buggedei.

But just having access to the data that Google or Facebook has about you, or looking at your cookies or website history in your browser, does not give you a lot of insight into what the data means. Therefore, bundled with the first version of the polyPod comes the polyPedia, a resource for users to explore and understand their digital shadow.

“The polyPedia is a repository of generic knowledge that helps you connect the dots. It tells you that if you have a cookie from a domain, which company is behind it, what its privacy policy says, and what this means for where this information about you is stored and who has access to it,” says Christian Buggedei.

Making portable data useful

For Europeans and many others, it is already possible to download and explore your personal data since data portability is mandated in Article 20 of the GDPR. If someone collects personal data about you, you have the right to get it back in a structured, commonly used and machine-readable format from a whoever has collected it and the right to use it for another service.

But while getting access to your data is one thing and making sense of it is another, actually making use of it is one of the key values that polypoly will offer users in future iterations of the polyPod.

“With the second iteration of the polyPod, end users will get true data portability. If they want to change services, they can easily do that because they have the data already. Right now you're locked in in a lot of ways because the companies and services you use have your data and are not giving it to you in a way that you can easily make use of in a different setting,” says Christian Buggedei.