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What Social Networks Are Teaching Us About Data Portability

by Steven Robbins on May 22, 2008 |
As more social networking sites are popping up, the questions around the data they keep are rising. Data portability has become the watch phrase across the Web 2.0 world. Is there something to be learned about data access and portability from these services?

Several of the major Web 2.0 players and services have made announcements about making the data they store "available" to the users who own it or aggregating access to data from other services. MySpace, Yahoo, eBay, Twitter, and Photobucket agreed to a partnership under the MySpace Data Availability initiative. Facebook announced their Facebook Connect technology to allow members to access their profile data from places other than Facebook. Google launched the preview release of Friend Connect that will allow users to see and interact across several social networks. Friendfeed released an API to allow programatic access to their multi-site aggregation capabilities.

In the background, but moving to the forefront, The DataPortability Project has been bringing together partners, technology, principles, and practices to make data portability and ownership a priority and an achievable goal. Their organization mission is
The DataPortability Project is a group created to promote the idea that individuals have control over their data by determining how they can use it and who can use it. This includes access to data that is under the control of another entity.
DataPortability listed the main points of their philosophy as:
  • You should be able to decide what you do with that data and how it gets used by others
  • Open Source solutions are preferred to closed source proprietary solutions
  • Bottom-up distributed solutions are preferred to top down centralized solutions
Among the main technologies that the Project focused on were OpenID, OAuth, RSS, OPML, microformats, RDF, apml, and XMPP.

While these technologies have been strongly tied to social networking, they have also been picking up usage in other areas as well. OAuth has been making inroads with Google Data APIs and Yahoo Fire Eagle API. Spring Security (Acegi) added OpenID support. Most all of the major browsers have already added or announced microformat support of one kind or another.

The growth in interest and technologies surrounding data availability, portability, and aggregation has ramifications on design and development of applications outside the social network space. The more that Software-as-a-Service and cloud computing are picked as enterprise and application models, the more distributed systems become. The distribution can lead to much more decentralization, even beyond the enterprise/organizational boundaries. This can be seen in healthcare with the rise of the Personal Health Record (PHR). With names like Google and Microsoft announcing PHR offerings over the web, data portability and availability will start hitting home with many more people than just those on social networking sites.

Mark Scrimshire summed up the data portability needs for PHRs:
The challenge that the Data portability movement is attempting to address is closely paralleled by the evolution of the Personal Health Record in the healthcare industry. We will want to own our own health information, but we will need to be able to share that information with medical providers and others. We will need a universal ability to share information, but share it securely. At the same time the process of managing access will need to be easy. We can learn an awful lot from the simple approaches that characterize OpenID, OAuth, microformats and other pervasive technologies that have succeeded on the Web.

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