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A Hub for Data and a Kickbox

I should do my tax declaration. Really soon now. I have almost all the papers assembled – wait – papers? I need a lot of data, some available on paper, some within PDFs; very few data are machine-readable.
Martin Gfeller
Martin Gfeller, Head Application and Business Services
22 marzo 2022

For this task, I do not have enough data available in a standardized form. On the other hand, my daily life creates plentiful data, which are collected by various organizations (often by implicit consent because I use their services).

If I would be able to obtain data in an organized fashion and share it with a tax advisor (which may be a robot) or the tax office, my task would be much easier. I would need a data hub to organize the data collection and data sharing between providers and services. I want to share data explicitly, with my full and revocable consent, instead of letting it drip into a sea of data with no benefits except free services:

Overview Digital Data Hub

This contrast of too much data created implicitly, and not having enough data to ease my daily transactions applies to many domains of life: whenever I buy something, bank, insure, travel, educate, for myself and my family.

A Hub for Digital Data

This idea of a hub for digital data started with Open Banking, extending it to “Open Almost Everything”. The need became acute in a startup I was involved in, which was starving due to the cost of collecting data (in the grocery shopping sector).

 

But I’m working at Swisscom, and doesn’t Swisscom provide connectivity and access? Indeed, the Digital Data Hub provides connectivity between organizations and individuals. It provides access to a market of data and transactions.

 

Swisscom is a data-neutral enabler; it doesn’t control who talks to whom or who connects with whom.

 

This contrasts to ecosystems built by service suppliers, where participants are admitted by the service supplier. Typical ecosystems are organized by banks (for example, ZAK) and insurance companies, and may include complementary offerings around housing (mortgages, brokers, insurance, renovation) or health (insurance, medical offerings, sports, nutrition). Often, such ecosystems exclude competitors, limiting the choice of the users.

 

With open ecosystems, the customers and not the suppliers select their partners. The Digital Data Hub is supplier-neutral and provides open choices to customers. To connect competing organizations, standardization is important. Open Banking took off only once common interactions were standardize.

Kickbox

I received encouragement from various people inside and outside of Swisscom, in particular from André Golliez of the Swiss Data Alliance and Christian Kunz of bitsabout.me. People within Swisscom pointed me to Kickbox, our intrapreneurship program.

 

I was hesitant at first – thinking of Kickbox as geared to startup ideas and improvements in a particular business, rather than building a whole new ecosystem. But it would give the idea some internal recognition and open doors, so I joined Kickbox. I also found two internal partners who were enthusiastic and joined my Kickbox team.

 

As Kickbox encourages you to be bold, we adopted the slogan “Digital Operating System for Switzerland”.

 

The Kickbox program has three phases, red box, blue box, and gold box; we completed the first two.

Red Box: Market Research

In the red box phase, we mainly undertook market research and were talking to potential internal sponsors.

 

We did some interviews and used a questionnaire to sound the idea: About two-thirds of the individual respondents liked the idea and would use it. Although our sample was small, the result corresponds to much larger, international studies.

 

On the company side, small companies were most enthusiastic, seeing the business potential to attract new clients, who would join with their data already in the system. They were ready to be early adopters and were also willing to contribute to the standards.

 

Larger companies were split; although many see potential in sharing data and building ecosystems, some bigger players want to build their own partner systems, which they control. They want to provide a one-stop-shop, building on partners, and expect the user to roam in their ecosystem.

 

However, life is not a one-stop-shop; Real Estate, Finance, Travel, Shopping, Health, and Insurance are all interconnected. Essentially, there is one big ecosystem: Life

Graphic Life - Finance - Transport - Retail

A Data Hub has to be open, federated, and interoperable to encompass all aspects of life. 

Blue Box: Research on Privacy and Security Requirements

For the blue box phase, we were lucky to find Christian Schüpbach from the Swisscom Digital Business Unit as our sponsor. He offered a collaboration with MIT Connection Science and Engineering and desired that we investigate the privacy and security requirements for a Digital Data Hub. This involved research, and I was reading many books and papers and discovered that secure and private data sharing is a topic of active research and many initiatives.

 

So, we were not alone with our vision, but we have a distinct focus on data leading to transactions between individuals and organizations. This is not about big data collections; indeed, most data start small.

 

We introduced community-contributed Data Apps to organize the data, define data standards, and execute transactions. They are the primary means to create value from data. Their execution is controlled in a secured and individually encrypted environment.

Data Apps of the Digital Data Hub

Together with Thomas Hardjono from MIT, I described the results in a paper: Privacy and Security Requirements for a Digital Data Hub. The paper describes the core requirements and solutions for building and operating such a system in a secure and privacy-preserving way. I’ve also created an illustrated overview to make the paper more accessible.

Building an ecosystem is hard

A Kickbox project is a ride, with its ups and downs. However, throughout the ride, everybody at Swisscom was open to discussing ideas and helping. Never underestimate the power of a large organization with a supportive culture; there is always an expert, and most are willing to help.

 

Building an open ecosystem and persuading stakeholders remains hard. The thought leaders at MIT are convinced that consented data sharing will happen at a large scale; how we will get there remains to be seen and proven. The Digital Data Hub attempts to tackle the real issues of privacy, security, and standardization while remaining open and federated.

 

Ultimately, it’s not about simplifying a tax declaration, but having your data ready and usable whenever and wherever you need it.

 

Are you an expert in building ecosystems? Do you want to join me in fostering the Digital Data Hub, the Digital Operating System for Switzerland? I look forward to hearing from you.

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Martin Gfeller

Head Application and Business Services

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