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Being in charge of who uses your data, this is possible. Together with imec, universities in Flanders are teaming up under the name SolidLab to explore the potential offered by data vaults. The government is allocating €7 million for the research. The research will look at the extent to which data vaults can compete with big data. “This is needed, because big data not only creates privacy problems. It is also holding back innovation,” says Ruben Verborgh, Professor of Decentralized Web Technology at Ghent University in Belgium.

Big data and privacy scandals. These two concepts seem to be inextricably linked. Facebook was fined a record US$5 billion for privacy infringements two years ago. But there are more downsides to lumping together enormous amounts of data. Big data is holding back the ability of companies to innovate. “If a tech company wants to make a difference, the first thing such a company has to do is collect data,” Verborgh explains. “An awful lot of time and money is spent on that. Moreover, smaller companies find it very difficult to compete with data giants such as Facebook. As such, big data is not conducive to innovation. The collection economy is actually very boring. It’s not the most innovative player who wins, but the one who collects the most data.”

Ruben Verborgh
Ruben Verborgh

Time for a change, in other words. Flemish universities, the University of Ghent, Vrije Universiteit Brussel and the Catholic University of Leuven, are joining forces with imec, a research center for nanoelectronics and digital technology, to explore an alternative to big data within the SolidLab project. “Each person will then have their own data vault to store data in. Companies and applications would then need to request access to make use of this data. A simple idea with huge implications for innovation. You only have to enter your data once. After that, it can be reused in its entirety.”


That SolidLab is receiving €7 million is a welcome recognition of the potential of data vaults, Verborgh believes. “The government recognizes that we need to prepare for a different kind of data economy.” Flanders, but essentially all of Europe, has missed the boat as far as the big data economy is concerned. The United States and China, in particular, are the major players in this respect. “With this project, the government is going to support the future data economy, and consequently also innovation in Europe.”

6 million citizens

The project focuses on technological, social and also financial challenges. The key question is how to cope with a large number of smaller data collections, both in technological and socio-economic terms. Verborgh: “If we want to set up data vaults for six million citizens, we actually have to set up six million storage places. So, we need to approach it very differently from the way we approach big data now, whereby there are a few large locations where all the data is stored. But it is well worth trying, because the beneficial consequences are substantial.”

Additionally, we also need to learn more when it comes to civil society. “Consider, for instance, the legal aspects. How will everything change when data belongs to the individual themselves? And how do you explain this new innovation to people? That is also where the focus of this project lies.”

Digital relocation

The project uses a lot of use cases to test out data innovations. One of these is My Digital Move, where data vaults should ensure that a relocation goes smoothly. “When you undergo a relocation nowadays, you have to spread your data around everywhere yourself. For example, consider inputting data to arrange the delivery of gas, water and electricity. In the future, you just put a piece of data in the data vault, and any service provider can then easily access it when you grant them permission.”

Connecting islands

The fact that three major Flemish universities are now putting their heads together to make SolidLab a success, is something Verborgh finds very promising. “My colleagues and I, we are computer scientists and we are stuck on our small technological island. We mainly see how we can address technological challenges, but, of course, we are contending with a very complex story. As universities, we need each other, because there are others who are in turn better at examining the economic and social frameworks…. We can make good use of all that expertise.”