Towards a human-centric data economy

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Spurred by widespread adoption of artificial intelligence and machine learning, “data” is becoming a key production factor, comparable in importance to capital, land, or labour in an increasingly digital economy. In spite of an ever-growing demand for third-party data in the B2B market, firms are generally reluctant to share their information. This is due to the unique characteristics of “data” as an economic good (a freely replicable, non-depletable asset holding a highly combinatorial and context-specific value), which moves digital companies to hoard and protect their “valuable” data assets, and to integrate across the whole value chain seeking to monopolise the provision of innovative services built upon them. As a result, most of those valuable assets still remain unexploited in corporate silos nowadays. This situation is shaping the so-called data economy around a number of champions, and it is hampering the benefits of a global data exchange on a large scale. Some analysts have estimated the potential value of the data economy in US$2.5 trillion globally by 2025. Not surprisingly, unlocking the value of data has become a central policy of the European Union, which also estimated the size of the data economy in 827C billion for the EU27 in the same period. Within the scope of the European Data Strategy, the European Commission is also steering relevant initiatives aimed to identify relevant cross-industry use cases involving different verticals, and to enable sovereign data exchanges to realise them. Among individuals, the massive collection and exploitation of personal data by digital firms in exchange of services, often with little or no consent, has raised a general concern about privacy and data protection. Apart from spurring recent legislative developments in this direction, this concern has raised some voices warning against the unsustainability of the existing digital economics (few digital champions, potential negative impact on employment, growing inequality), some of which propose that people are paid for their data in a sort of worldwide data labour market as a potential solution to this dilemma [114, 115, 155]. From a technical perspective, we are far from having the required technology and algorithms that will enable such a human-centric data economy. Even its scope is still blurry, and the question about the value of data, at least, controversial. Research works from different disciplines have studied the data value chain, different approaches to the value of data, how to price data assets, and novel data marketplace designs. At the same time, complex legal and ethical issues with respect to the data economy have risen around privacy, data protection, and ethical AI practices. In this dissertation, we start by exploring the data value chain and how entities trade data assets over the Internet. We carry out what is, to the best of our understanding, the most thorough survey of commercial data marketplaces. In this work, we have catalogued and characterised ten different business models, including those of personal information management systems, companies born in the wake of recent data protection regulations and aiming at empowering end users to take control of their data. We have also identified the challenges faced by different types of entities, and what kind of solutions and technology they are using to provide their services. Then we present a first of its kind measurement study that sheds light on the prices of data in the market using a novel methodology. We study how ten commercial data marketplaces categorise and classify data assets, and which categories of data command higher prices. We also develop classifiers for comparing data products across different marketplaces, and we study the characteristics of the most valuable data assets and the features that specific vendors use to set the price of their data products. Based on this information and adding data products offered by other 33 data providers, we develop a regression analysis for revealing features that correlate with prices of data products. As a result, we also implement the basic building blocks of a novel data pricing tool capable of providing a hint of the market price of a new data product using as inputs just its metadata. This tool would provide more transparency on the prices of data products in the market, which will help in pricing data assets and in avoiding the inherent price fluctuation of nascent markets. Next we turn to topics related to data marketplace design. Particularly, we study how buyers can select and purchase suitable data for their tasks without requiring a priori access to such data in order to make a purchase decision, and how marketplaces can distribute payoffs for a data transaction combining data of different sources among the corresponding providers, be they individuals or firms. The difficulty of both problems is further exacerbated in a human-centric data economy where buyers have to choose among data of thousands of individuals, and where marketplaces have to distribute payoffs to thousands of people contributing personal data to a specific transaction. Regarding the selection process, we compare different purchase strategies depending on the level of information available to data buyers at the time of making decisions. A first methodological contribution of our work is proposing a data evaluation stage prior to datasets being selected and purchased by buyers in a marketplace. We show that buyers can significantly improve the performance of the purchasing process just by being provided with a measurement of the performance of their models when trained by the marketplace with individual eligible datasets. We design purchase strategies that exploit such functionality and we call the resulting algorithm Try Before You Buy, and our work demonstrates over synthetic and real datasets that it can lead to near-optimal data purchasing with only O(N) instead of the exponential execution time - O(2N) - needed to calculate the optimal purchase. With regards to the payoff distribution problem, we focus on computing the relative value of spatio-temporal datasets combined in marketplaces for predicting transportation demand and travel time in metropolitan areas. Using large datasets of taxi rides from Chicago, Porto and New York we show that the value of data is different for each individual, and cannot be approximated by its volume. Our results reveal that even more complex approaches based on the “leave-one-out” value, are inaccurate. Instead, more complex and acknowledged notions of value from economics and game theory, such as the Shapley value, need to be employed if one wishes to capture the complex effects of mixing different datasets on the accuracy of forecasting algorithms. However, the Shapley value entails serious computational challenges. Its exact calculation requires repetitively training and evaluating every combination of data sources and hence O(N!) or O(2N) computational time, which is unfeasible for complex models or thousands of individuals. Moreover, our work paves the way to new methods of measuring the value of spatio-temporal data. We identify heuristics such as entropy or similarity to the average that show a significant correlation with the Shapley value and therefore can be used to overcome the significant computational challenges posed by Shapley approximation algorithms in this specific context. We conclude with a number of open issues and propose further research directions that leverage the contributions and findings of this dissertation. These include monitoring data transactions to better measure data markets, and complementing market data with actual transaction prices to build a more accurate data pricing tool. A human-centric data economy would also require that the contributions of thousands of individuals to machine learning tasks are calculated daily. For that to be feasible, we need to further optimise the efficiency of data purchasing and payoff calculation processes in data marketplaces. In that direction, we also point to some alternatives to repetitively training and evaluating a model to select data based on Try Before You Buy and approximate the Shapley value. Finally, we discuss the challenges and potential technologies that help with building a federation of standardised data marketplaces. The data economy will develop fast in the upcoming years, and researchers from different disciplines will work together to unlock the value of data and make the most out of it. Maybe the proposal of getting paid for our data and our contribution to the data economy finally flies, or maybe it is other proposals such as the robot tax that are finally used to balance the power between individuals and tech firms in the digital economy. Still, we hope our work sheds light on the value of data, and contributes to making the price of data more transparent and, eventually, to moving towards a human-centric data economy.
Big data, Data value, Data marketplaces, Data economy, Trading data, Machine to machine (M2M), Electronic data interchange, Electronic commerce, Business model analysis
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