Single File, Everyone: The Advent of the Universal Digital Profile

Ducks at Parramatta, Image by Stilherrian

Throughout grades 1 through 6 at Public School 79 in Queens, New York, the teachers had one universal command they relied upon to try to quickly gather and organize the students in each class during various activities. They would announce “Single file, everyone”, and expect us all to form a straight line with one student after the other all pointed in the same direction. They would usually deploy this to move us in an orderly fashion to and from the lunchroom, schoolyard, gym and auditorium. Not that this always worked as several requests were usually required to get us all to quiet down and line up.

Just as it was used back then as a means to bring order to a room full of energetic grade-schoolers,  those three magic words can now be re-contextualized and re-purposed for today’s digital everything world when applied to a new means of bringing more control and safety to our personal data. This emerging mechanism is called the universal digital profile (UDP). It involves the creation of a dedicated file to compile and port an individual user’s personal data, content and usage preferences from one online service to another.

This is being done in an effort to provide enhanced protection to consumers and their digital data at a critical time when there have been so many online security breaches of major systems that were supposedly safe. More importantly, these devastating hacks during the past several years have resulted in the massive betrayals of users’ trust that need to be restored.

Clearly and concisely setting the stage for the development of UDPs was an informative article on TechCrunch.com entitled The Birth of the Universal Digital Profile, by Rand Hindi, posted on May 22, 2018. I suggest reading it in its entirety. I will summarize and annotate it, and then pose some of my own questions about these, well, pro-files.

Image from Pixabay

The Need Arises

It is axiomatic today that there is more concern over online privacy among Europeans than other populations elsewhere. This is due, in part, to the frequency and depth of the above mentioned deliberate data thefts. These incidents and other policy considerations led to the May 25, 2018 enactment and implementation of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) across the EU.

The US is presently catching up in its own citizens’ levels of rising privacy concerns following the recent Facebook and Cambridge Analytica scandal.¹

Among its many requirements, the GDPR ensures that all individuals have the right to personal data portability, whereby the users of any online services can request from these sites that their personal data can be “transferred to another provider, without hindrance”. This must be done in a file format the receiving provider requires. For example, if a user is changing from one social network to another, all of his or her personal data is to be transferred to the new social network in a workable file format.

The exact definition of “personal profile” is still open to question. The net effect of this provision is that one’s “online identity will soon be transferable” to numerous other providers. As such transfer requests increase, corporate owners of such providers will likely “want to minimize” their means of compliance. The establishment of standardized data formats and application programming interfaces (APIs) enabling this process would be a means to accomplish this.²

Aurora Borealis, Image by Beverly

A Potential Solution

It will soon become evident to consumers that their digital profiles can become durable, reusable and, hence, universal for other online destinations. They will view their digital profiles “as a shared resource” for similar situations. For instance, if a user has uploaded his or her profile to a site for verification, in turn, he or she should be able to re-use such a “verified profile elsewhere”.³  

This would be similar to the Facebook Connect’s functionality but with one key distinction: Facebook would retain no discretion at all over where the digital profile goes and who can access it following its transfer. That control would remain entirely with the profile’s owner.

As the UDP enters the “mainstream” usage, it may well give rise to “an entire new digital economy”. This might include new services such as “personal data clouds to personal identity aggregators or data monetization platforms”. In effect, increased interoperability between and among sites and services for UDPs might enable these potential business opportunities to take root and then scale up.

Digital profiles, especially now for Europeans, is one of the critical “impacts of the GDPR” on their online lives and freedom. Perhaps its objectives will spread to other nations.

My Questions

  • Can the UDP’s usage be expanded elsewhere without the need for enacting GDPR-like regulation? That is, for economic, public relations and technological reasons, might online services support UDPs on their own initiatives rather than waiting for more governments to impose such requirements?
  • What additional data points and functional capabilities would enhance the usefulness, propagation and extensibility of UDPs?
  • What other business and entrepreneurial opportunities might emerge from the potential web-wide spread of a GDPR and/or UDP-based model?
  • Are there any other Public School 79 graduates out there reading this?

On a very cold night in New York on December 20, 2017, I had an opportunity to attend a fascinating presentation  by Dr. Irene Ng before the Data Scientists group from Meetup.com about an inventive alternative for dispensing one’s personal digital data called the Hub of All Things (HAT). [Clickable also @hubofallthings.] In its simplest terms, this involves the provision of a form of virtual container (the “HAT” situated on a “micro-server”), storing an individual’s personal data. This system enables the user to have much more control over whom, and to what degree, they choose to allow access to their data by any online services, vendors or sites. For the details on the origin, approach and technology of the HAT, I highly recommend a click-through to a very enlightening new article on Medium.com entitled What is the HAT?, by Jonathan Holtby, posted yesterday on June 6, 2018.


1.  This week’s news bring yet another potential scandal for Facebook following reports that they shared extensive amounts of personal user data with mobile device vendors, including Huawei, a Chinese company that has been reported to have ties with China’s government and military. Here is some of the lead coverage so far from this week’s editions of The News York Times:

2.  See also these five Subway Fold posts involving the use of APIs in other systems.

3.  See Blockchain To The Rescue Creating A ‘New Future’ For Digital Identities, by Roger Aitlen, posted on Forbes.com on January 7, 2018, for a report on some of the concepts of, and participants in, this type of technology.

Twitter and Facebook are Rapidly Rising Across All Major US Demographic Groups as Primary News Platforms

"Media in Central Park New York City", Image by Ernst Moeksis

“Media in Central Park New York City”, Image by Ernst Moeksis

Cutting across five fundamental demographic segments, Twitter and Facebook are now the primary sources for news among the US population. This was the central finding of a new report issued on July 14, 2015 by the Pew Research Center for Journalism and Media entitled News Use on Facebook and Twitter Is on the Rise by Michael Barthel, Elisa Shearer, Jeffrey Gottfried and Amy Mitchell. The full text and supporting graphics appear in an 18-page PDF file on the Pew website is entitled The Evolving Role of News on Twitter and Facebook. I highly recommended clicking through to read the full report.

A number of concise summaries of it quickly appeared online. I found the one written by Joseph Lichtman on NeimanLab.com (a site about Internet journalism at Harvard University), entitled New Pew Data: More Americans are Getting News on Facebook and Twitter, also on July 14th to be an informative briefing on it. I will, well, try to sum up this summary, add some annotations and pose some questions.

First, for some initial perspective, on January 21, 2015, a Subway Fold Post entitled  The Transformation of News Distribution by Social Media Platforms in 2015, examined how the nature of news media was being dramatically impacted by social media. This new Pew Research Institute report focuses on the changing demographics of Facebook and Twitter users for news consumption.

This new study found that 63% of both Twitter and Facebook users are now getting their news from these leading social media platforms. As compared to a similar Pew survey in 2013, this is a 52% increase for Twitter and a 47% increase for Facebook. Of those following a live news event as it occurs, the split is more pronounced as 59% of Twitter users and 31% of Facebook users are engaged in viewing such coverage.

According to Amy Mitchell, one of the report’s authors and Pew’s Director of Journalism Research, each social media site “adapt to their role” and provide “unique features”. As well, they ways in which US users connect in different ways “have implications” for how they “learn about their world” and partake in their democracy.

In order enhance their growing commitment to live coverage, both sites have recently rolled out innovative new services. Twitter has a full-featured multimedia app called Project Lightening to facilitate following news in real-time. Facebook is likewise expanding its news operations with their recent announced of the launch of Instant Articles, a rapid news co-publishing app in cooperation with nine of the world’s leading news organizations.

Further parsing the survey’s demographic data for US adults generated the following findings:

  • Sources of News: 10% get their news on Twitter while 41% get their news on Facebook, with an overlap of 8% using both. This is also due to the fact that Facebook has a much larger user base than Twitter. Furthermore, while the total US user bases of both platforms currently remains steady, the percentages of those users therein seeking news on both is itself increasing.
  • Comparative Trends in Five Key Demographics: The very enlightening chart at the bottom of Page 2 of the report breaks down Twitter’s and Facebook’s percentages and percentage increases between 2013 and 2015 for gender, race, age, education level, and incomes.
  • Relative Importance of Platforms: These results are further qualified in that those surveyed reported that Americans still see both of these platforms overall as “secondary news sources” and “not a very important way” to stay current.
  • Age Groups: When age levels were added, this changes to nearly 50% of those between 18 and 35 years finding Twitter and Facebook to be “the most important” sources of news. Moving on to those over 35 years, the numbers declined to 34% of Facebook users and 31% of Twitter users responding that these platforms were among the “most important” news sources.
  • Content Types Sought and Engaged: Facebook users were more likely to click on political content than Twitter users to the extent of 32% to 25%, respectively. The revealing charts in the middle of Page 3 demonstrate that Twitter users see and pursue a wider variety of 11 key news topics. As well, the percentage tallies of gender differences by topic and by platform are also presented.

My own questions are as follows:

  • Might Twitter and Facebook benefit from additional cooperative ventures to further expand their comprehensiveness, target demographics, and enhanced data analytics for news categories by exploring additional projects with other organizations. For instance, and among many other possibilities, there are Dataminr who track and parse the entirety of the Twitterverse in real-time (as previously covered in these three Subway Fold posts); Quid who is tracking massive amount of online news (as previously covered in this Subway Fold post); and GDELT which is translating online news in real-time in 65 languages (as previously covered in this Subway Fold post).
  • What additional demographic categories would be helpful in future studies by Pew and other researchers as this market and its supporting technologies, particularly in an increasingly social and mobile web world, continue to evolve so quickly? For example, how might different online access speeds affect the distribution and audience segmentation of news distributed on social platforms?
  • Are these news consumption demographics limited only to Twitter and Facebook? For example, LinkedIn has gone to great lengths in the past few years to upgrade its content offerings. How might the results have differed if the Pew questionnaire had included LinkedIn and possibly others like Instagram?
  • How can this Pew study be used to improve the effectiveness of marketing and business development for news organizations for their sponsors, content strategist for their clients, and internal and external SEO professionals for their organizations?

The Need for Specialized Application Programming Interfaces for Human Genomics R&D Initiatives

"DNA Molecule Display, Oxford University", Image by allispossible.org.uk

“DNA Molecule Display, Oxford University”, Image by allispossible.org.uk

The term of art for the onscreen workspaces containing the sophisticated tools used by software developers and engineers is called the application programming interface (API).¹ It is where code is written, assembled, tested and revised.

Scientists working on various aspects of the human genome have recently expressed a comparable need for the development of specialized APIs to assist in a wide range of projects in their field.² A very informative and compelling  piece about this by Prakash Menon (CEO of BaseHealth) entitled Developing An Application Programming Interface for the Genome was posted on VentureBeat.com on June 27, 2015. I will sum up, annotate, and then pose some questions that will not require their own specialized API to be considered.

The article begins by citing to a quote from Gholson Lyon, a genomics scientist at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York, about the existing lack of a “killer app to interact” with DNA. He very recently raised this in another article entitled Apple Has Plans for your DNA by Antonio Regalado, posted on May 5, 2015 on MIT’s technologyreview.com. (The article appears in print in the July/August 2015 issue of MIT’s Technology Review.) This fascinating piece is about Apple’s new ResearchKit, an open source medical research framework for researchers to create iPhone apps for medical studies.³ Such an API technology, as Gholson described it, would make access and interpretation the genome universal, as well as make it more “programmable”.  (I highly recommend reading both Menon’s and Regalato’s articles together in their entirety.) 

Menon parses the three waves of genomics computing in the following manner:

  • First Wave:  During the 1990’s, this was the “sequencing era” when the human genome was first fully mapped. Rapid technological advances have enabled scientists to do this increasingly faster and cheaper. This has resulted in the emergence of the field of personalized medicine where diagnostics and treatments are designed by using more accurate genomic data of patients.
  • Second Wave: The current state of genomic technologies with faster (termed “high-throughput”), more accurate, and less expensive genome sequencing for treating diseases.
  • Third Wave: This is currently evolving with an emphasis is upon “integrating genomic data with other types of data”. This will soon permit advances such as “connect variants to environmental, lifestyle, dietary, and activity” data for the benefit of people who are well as well as those who are suffering from genetically based illnesses.

He believes that creating APIs for genomic science to be used by “developers everywhere” would put genomic data into a “wider context” and, in turn, enable new insights to be integrated into daily medical practice. Furthermore, timely innovations become more likely. As he sees this situation, the genome is a “database that we have constructed and curated”, and as such requires new interfaces to obtain the most value from its vast contents.

This also raises the prospect of genomic APIs becoming yet another addition in a growing conceptual framework dubbed the “API Economy”. (See Six Ways to Get a Grip on the API Economy by Serdar Yegulap, posted on InfoWorld.com on April 20, 2015, for a concise summary and the latest indicators of this emerging trend.)

Perhaps the Fourth Wave of genomics computing will be ushered in by a new generation of software and hardware developers who will “think about personalization at the molecular level”, and not require any further involvement by skilled bioinformatics specialists.

The author acknowledges the need for “privacy, security and the ethical implications” of his proposals, but believes that the potential benefits will result in these concerns being resolved.

Potential new software-driven innovations from Menon’s proposed genomic APIs include:

  • Pharmacy systems that integrate with a patient’s genomic data so that prescribed drugs are the best choices for the individual, including a reduction in side effects.
  • Improved organ and bone marrow donor matching systems.
  • Optimizing food ingredients, supplements and diets, as well as activity and rest periods.
  • Adding genomic data to “build worlds around each player” in online games.

In Menon’s assessment of these four waves, he sees the third wave presently “playing out” and the fourth wave arriving but “it’s not yet widely distributed”.Today, the first genomic APIs are starting to appear. In the US, developers are immersing themselves in the key concepts of molecular biology to more fully enable their work. He further predicts that in the next wave of “billion-dollar businesses” will involve the human genome, only some of which will be specifically in health care.

As to the needs and desires of individuals concerning their genomic data, Menon believes that they want to use it for their own advantage, combine and compare it with the data of others, and to create “wholly new capabilities”.  Indeed, we have seen already numerous applications of genomic data that could not possibly have been imagined by James Watson and Francis Crick, the Nobel Prize winning discoverers of the structure of DNA.

My questions are as follows:

  • Should genomics APIs be developed and circulated on a fully open source basis? If so, what intellectual property issues may still arise and how, and by whom, should they be settled, arbitrated or litigated?5
  • Will developers from other fields, as well as non-affiliated scientifically curious individuals, be drawn into using the APIs for original research and development projects?
  • What, if any, scientific, ethical and regulatory guidelines might be needed as oversight for genomic APIs?
  • Will such APIs lead to a surge in startup company formation in genomics and other related biotechnology businesses?
  • Are there unique elements of design and functionality in genomic APIs that might lead to innovations in API development in other fields? That is, is there some form of beneficial and/or symbiotic effect that may emerge?

 


1 An API for the depository of TED Talks was recently discussed in the May 13, 2015 Subway Fold post entitled IBM’s Watson is Now Data Mining TED Talks to Extract New Forms of Knowledge.

2.  See also the June 12, 2015 Subway Fold post entitled Scientists Are Developing Massive Storage Systems Based Upon Minute Amounts of DNA and Polymers for a related story on using DNA as a dramatically different information storage medium.

3.  For a full exploration of current efforts and proposals to use smartphones as medical platforms, please see the March 3, 2015 Subway Fold post entitled Book Review of “The Patient Will See You Now”. To follow this area of development on a daily basis I highly recommend following the book’s author, Dr. Eric Topol, on Twitter at @EricTopol.

4.  This point invokes master sci-fi writer William Gibson’s often quoted line “The future is here already — it’s just not very evenly distributed.

5.  The United States Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal of a case involving Google and Oracle concerning the ownership of an API . See Supreme Court Declines to Hear Appeal in Google-Oracle Copyright Fight by Quentin Hardy, in the June 29, 2015 edition of The New York Times for full coverage.