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Capture the Ocean: Paving the Way for a "Lean Data" Future

BY Jessica McKenzie | Friday, March 28 2014

Moonjazz / Flickr

“One of the things I would say to a large company,” began one comment from Edward Snowden at SXSW earlier this month, “is not that you can’t collect any data; it is that you should only collect the data and hold it for as long as necessary for the operation of the business.”

A new research project called Capture the Ocean hopes to make business models like the one described by Snowden possible by identifying, explaining and comparing global laws regulating data collection, use and retention.

“There are all of these ways that the law requires companies to hold data,” Sean McDonald, the CEO of Capture the Ocean's founding organization, The Social Impact Lab, told techPresident: tax law, evidence law, and data retention for security purposes. “Because so many internet companies have turned to advertising as revenue, we don't know what's required or optional.”

To encourage a shift to "lean data" business and operating models, Capture the Ocean hopes to make it easier for journalists, entrepreneurs, policy makers, and organizations to understand the laws governing data retention by creating easy to read visualizations.

"I don't think that this project is about deciding what is good," explained McDonald, "but about lowering the barriers to people forming their own opinions about it. It's making the state of the conversation easier to understand."

"The way that people and commercial institutions and governments interact and regulate the use of data is not necessarily definitively good or definitively bad, but we need more diversity."

Capture the Ocean and International Development

International development organizations are working around the world to digitize services in unregulated places, using platforms like The Social Impact Lab's FrontlineSMS. But in some countries the information they end up holding might put the people they are trying to help at risk.

“We tend to not talk about data storage as a vulnerability for small or under-resourced organizations,” McDonald explained.

In Uganda, for example, where an anti-gay law was passed in February, the increasing digitization of health records could theoretically put people at risk if their information is compromised.

While the digitization of essential services increases efficiency and accuracy, it also increases the number of eyes on that data, at various points of transmission and storage.

The idea is that, with information provided by Capture the Ocean, development organizations will be able to be savvier about how they design their digital platforms, what data they have to hold on to and what they can delete, and hopefully reduce the risks to their patients or users.

Research for Capture the Ocean will be carried out by multiple academic institutions, advocacy groups and other organizations, including the Berkman Center for Internet & Society, Thompson Reuters TrustLaw Project, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, among others.

McDonald has entered Capture the Ocean in the Knight News Challenge, where you can learn more about the project and offer feedback and support.

Personal Democracy Media is grateful to the Omidyar Network and the UN Foundation for their generous support of techPresident's WeGov section.

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