Here’s a piece I wrote recently for the Technology Strategy Board, cross posted from their site.

When I was a mere lad making the transition from a career in the record industry into ‘New Media’ (whatever that was) the buzz phrase dropped constantly at conferences whenever tech and the creative industries met was “content is king”. The message was clear: “Yeah, yeah, all your futuristic toys are fine, but in the end it’s all about what people listen to/watch/read” (actually we were some way off e-readers, but you take my point). The funny thing was, some real creative industry hardliners didn’t even like the word content.

How things change. Wind forward a decade or so and it’s all about data. Data is “the new oil”. Data has become ‘Big’, and capitalised. You know that a concept has come of age when it’s being openly bashed in the mainstream press: “Big data: are we making a big mistake?” Tim Harford asked in the FT recently.

Of course, many of the Technology Strategy Board funding competitions I’ve been involved with one way or another over the last three years have reflected this: metadata has been at the heart of its Creative Industries Strategy, and remains there steadfastly. Last year’s Frictionless Commerce competition certainly took the idea into new territories (which was reflected in a fantastic diversity of applications), but ultimately it was all about data and metadata: content and services – and information about the uses thereof. And yet, and yet… it’s always felt something of a false dichotomy to me, this whole data/content thing. From a computer science point of view, once content is digitised it is data; and I’ve lost count of the times at conferences and briefing events when I’ve been berated (in a friendly way, of course) for even suggesting that there’s any real, meaningful difference between data and metadata.

What’s further muddied the waters over the last few years is that activity – real human activity in either the real world or in the digital realm – has become another kind of data entirely. And often it’s data that arises from the very interaction between users and content – from simple purchase and consumption through to sharing, attending, remixing… you get the picture. Giant businesses have been built off the back of smart uses of this data. Anyone who’s heard me speak on matters related will groan as I bring up Amazon yet again, but as Staci D. Kramer put it in a brilliantly insightful GigaOm some years ago: “The Biggest Thing Amazon Got Right [is] The Platform”. Put it another way: why did WhatsApp get that $19 billion from Facebook? Well most likely because they’ve got in the region of half a billion users.

But this user/content interaction – and the data derived from it – doesn’t come without its challenges. As users continue to develop what is termed ‘an accumulated online self’ – and in increasingly nuanced ways – these challenges will only increase. Issues over privacy really blew up last year and I hardly need to rehearse the specific cases. Furthermore, our online selves are often spread across multiple services; some of these may share information, or at least allow data-sets to talk to each other through smart API’s, but others yet are ‘owned’ by corporations competing ferociously with each other. And yes, then there’s that thorny issue of ownership: who does own all this data? Why don’t we?

The TSB likes to think that challenges come with opportunities; hence this latest funding competition looking at ways the value in content/user interaction data can be enhanced. How can ‘accumulated online self’ data be aggregated in ways that both return value to the user and create the opportunity for commercial and social leverage by third parties? What kind of businesses can give users the control over their personal data – how it is published and how it is traded? For that matter how can businesses allow users to use their personal data as an asset to be traded financially or socially? What kinds of service can create nuanced and innovative ways to build social, lifestyle, financial and health recommendations?

Yes, this is a thorny area – but it’s a rich and exciting one too. Last year’s Frictionless Commerce competition tackled another thorny area head on: how to create digital business ecosystems where trade in digital assets could happen as smoothly as possible. This call builds on that question and takes it somewhere else: how can the bewilderingly complex data about our online activity be turned into meaningful businesses which also return the most value to the source of that data – the user themselves.