Matthew Gaylard

Senior Project Manager,

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Use social networking platforms and persistent online user data to serve public rather than private ends and combat climate change.

Many people are concerned about tracking and retention of user data by online service providers. It feels like an invasion of privacy that Google stores all your searches. These are valid concerns, and they are exacerbated by the fact that the information gathered is treated as the property of the companies gathering it.

This information could be a very significant public resource (after all, we generate it). Addressing the environmental challenges we face requires an understanding of the emergent effects of the behavior of the billions of individuals on this planet. Trends in what people are searching for, talking about, what they buy and how they use products and services are very relevant. Increasingly, a significant portion of these behaviors create digital traces in databases maintained by a variety of online service providers.

Were we able to turn this data around so that we could face it in public, it could potentially become an incredibly powerful driver of behavior change. One of the struggles we face is for people to really understand the consequences of their individual actions. We need to grasp more immediately the collective impact of the sum of our individual actions.

A thought experiment: Imagine a Facebook app that you sign up for. You provide it with the details of your electricity account and some details about your domestic setup in terms of consumption. When you log into Facebook, the app provides you with details of your personal consumption over time and entire user community's consumption over time. You can see how the community's average consumption has changed over time and estimates of the carbon footprint. Lets say you're incentivised to record energy efficiency measures you take. You can also see which measures have been most effective across the entire user base. You could create custom filters to view consumers similar to you and make informed decisions on what steps to take. This is one example. There are many more - suggest?

  • Mar 8 2012: I have been thinking of the issues you raise for some time. I will put my cards on the table. Corporations have grown steadily more powerful over the last 20-30 years vis-a-vis governments, and have in many ways extended the capture of elected officials and the machinery of government at multiple levels. Rather than corporations existing to serve society, many people act as if its the other way around.
    In this, the "information age", a great deal of information is being amassed by facebook, google, and other private entities that could be used to greatly enhance the lives of individuals and society, and improve the functioning of governments
    (and if they don't represent the people, who does, or can ?) in multiple ways that go far beyond the self-interested profit motive. I would not say facebook or google should be public utilities. But some information sharing arrangements need to happen and exploratory ways of doing that, like Kevin's suggestion, should be pursued. Unfortunately, it seems more and more people distrust and feel that their government has nothing to do with them, does not represent them, etc and implicitly trust (or are conned) to a short-sighted naieve belief that corporate interests of these social networks "trusts" largely coincide with their own. This issue is only going to keep getting bigger. Climate change is one example , but the principle applies across the board where ever governments are trying to make and implement policy.There is no need to multiply examples.
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    Mar 7 2012: I love the idea! Investment firms could make quicker investment decisions if they knew what our energy usage was in real time. They could pay Facebook for the information and what we need to do is convince Facebook to pay us a percentage for allowing them to have our data. Currently Facebook and Twitter have convinced us to give us all the information for free ... quite the con game. At least this way we would benefit for being a participant.
    And similarly, I was thinking about the info we provide Google or Apple when we sign up for GPS tracking. State and Local governments are in need of new ways to generate income. So, what if Google and Apple had to pay your local government for info on "their" citizens/residents? Google and Apple can sell the information to companies that could offer in-depth and real time traffic information based on GPS information. Then they would pay a certain percentage of this info back to our local governments!
    The information we can provide (in real time!) to these large corporations could create huge amounts of money for our local governments! I can foresee the day when no taxes are needed! I will hold my elimination of the IRS for a future topic.