Summary:

Google executive Eric Schmidt believes the world needs a platform for data about us in aggregate, even as companies are still trying to decide if they want to expose data externally.

Eric Schmidt, executive chairman at Google, at the Economist's Information Forum in San Francisco on June 4, 2013
photo: Jordan Novet

It’s becoming clearer by the day that technology should make data accessible and understandable to not just data scientists but everyone. While speaking at the Economist’s Information Forum in San Francisco on Tuesday, Eric Schmidt, the executive chairman of Google, went one step further in calling for another important element that must emerge: a data “platform” for personal data in aggregate.

“The way we create wealth is by creating platforms,” Schmidt said. For a data platform, application programming interfaces (APIs) can be core ingredients. That means data coming off of countless connected devices can be continuously pushed into to a common place, presumably onto something as accessible and intuitive as Google.

But Google might not end up hosting this platform. “The back-end services will get standardized, probably, by some companies that have not yet been founded,” Schmidt said.

The trick is to ensure that personal data remains anonymous. The nature of the company that attempts to launch a data platform could dictate what sorts of privacy issues crop up as a result. “A brand new company nobody knows is perfectly happy to take your address book and spam everybody to death,” Schmidt said. “Once they get to a certain size, they (might overstep and) apologize and stop doing it.” Such a company might not have viewed the data use as problematic, or maybe it was a matter of doing it to be competitive, Schmidt said. Larger companies, on the other hand, have to stand up to consumer and regulatory scrutiny, he said.

Google is well acquainted with this sort of blowback, most recently regarding the access of personal data through Google Street View cars, and also over sharing Google Buzz user data.

While there seems to be an opportunity when it comes to growing a widely accepted data platform, doing it while guaranteeing privacy could be a tall order, and anyway, plenty of startups are still wrestling with whether to open up their data for external uses. Progress will have to be made there, too, for a platform to be truly valuable.

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