Sunday, 20 July 2008

Pret-a-porter for the web?

The term "pret a porter" means ready to wear. Is the web about to explode with ready-to-wear content the same way as 60s fashion moved things out from the couture house to the high street and the market stall? Blogs, wikis and Facebook, Flickr and podcasts, RSS and Twitter - all have helped. But chaos prevails in our online activities - too many passwords, sites, profiles, contact groups, communication channels and more and more. Dataportability aims to address this and, today, they reached a significant milestone with the selection of a steering group of 12 people to drive the effort.

Since the group formed late last year, organisational issues have hampered progress. Two attempts at establishing a logo (a simple task you might think!) have been met with cease and desist communiques from various quarters. As an open movement, many large internet companies were quick to jump on board but the actual day-to-day work was left to a small number of committed volunteers. Everybody had an equal voice and a unique set of opinions, making it difficult at times to find consensus or to stay focused.

The new steering group has a lot of work to do. A guick glance at the dataporatiblity wiki will frighten all but the most curious minds. Too many links, too many directions, too much information - too much of which ends in blind alleys and unfinished business. But the underlying idea is almost clear - a desire to give web users ownership and control of their data on the web.

The challenges facing the steering group remind me of the film, Twelve Angry Men, where Henry Fonda was relentless in his pursuit of truth and fairness. Their prolonged deliberations were concerned with:

  • coming to the truth
  • overcoming personal limitations
  • serving the public
  • coming to know people they would never meet otherwise
  • a pressure cooker because the stakes were high
  • great personal cost
  • every voice was important

The stakes for dataportability are very high. The aim of breaking down the walls of privacy on the web is commendable, but turning a list of standards and protocols into a viable framework with solid working examples is not easy. In an industry where many web developers don't even pay lip service to the needs of security or accessibility, the business case for adopting dataportability must be crystal clear and the techniques and processes must be well-devised and documented.

The open movement is maturing and gaining credibility. But, until the use of open standards becomes an expectation from users and businesses, the revolution will limp along while the software giants continue their race for control of our online activities and content. If the dataportability group can deliver concrete working examples, solid business cases and a viral mechanism for spreading the news, we could be on the brink of something great.

Dataportability is an open movement and anybody can join and help out. If you are interested, visit their website or just go directly to their wiki, where all the meaty (and confusing) stuff resides. There you will find links for various different action groups and links to google groups and skype public chats.