Why Hu.manity.co’s “My31” is Not a Sustainable Data Economy Model

9 min readSep 25, 2019

One of our Telegram followers asked us what we think about Hu.manity.co’s “My31” project, and how Decentr distinguishes itself from this project.

Very true: but does IBM’s My31 deliver on its promise to give your data economic value?

According to a Venture Beat article

“Hu-manity.co will use IBM’s version of blockchain, the decentralised ledger that ensures both security and transparency, to control and manage consent, authorisation, and commercial use of individuals‘ personal information. The IBM Blockchain Platform is a foundational technology to facilitate this, and it will allow millions of people to gain access to a permissioned blockchain-based data marketplace.”

So far, so good. But scratch the surface and the whole “control and manage” edifice cracks a little. The frankly weird “T-shirt-based” economic model (stay with us — it becomes clearer later on) that their startup has decided to deploy fares little better.

In our view, Hu.manity.co’s heart is likely in the right place (we have no evidence that suggests otherwise) and in conjunction with IBM’s Blockchain Platform they are making ostensibly reasonable steps in the right direction as regards immutable and secure data storage.

However, they are still only setting up a “marketplace” — a notion that threatens to diminish access and reuse of data squarely along the lines of those who can and will “buy” and “sell” their data and those who can’t or won’t.

The “buying” and “selling” of data as part of a “brokerage” arrangement is what we fundamentally object to in any form.

The very fact that data needs to be “bought” and “sold” is an immediate red flag — one that hints at a digital future that is an even more opaque, pseudo-decentralised version of the present. Hu.manity.co’s economics speaks to a system of data storage and retrieval mired in the murky shallows of an antiquated post-industrial business model, which is underpinned by the sneaking spectre of centralised currency that benefits the system while benefiting from said system.

In other words, Hu.manity.co’s data “buying”/“selling” model is — at best — simply a carbon copy of any online or offline marketplace.

To be fair, they are not disputing that.

The question is, if not a new marketplace or economic model, what then — broadly speaking — is the point?

The two don’t mesh. Think about it: how is decentralised data storage supposed to square off with a centralised payments system — without the integrity of the system (and possibly the data) not being compromised?

The answer is that it isn’t. This is because IBM’s Blockchain Platform — the one underpinning Hu.manity.co’s system is — by definition of being a blockchain — “sort-of”- decentralised-but-not-really whilst any digital means used to “buy” and “sell” data must by default also be “sort-of”-decentralised-but-not-really (in the same way as any blockchain and the tokenomics model or payments system that it supports and is supported by).

The bottom line is that it isn’t IBM’s technology or Hu.manity.co’s intentions that we take issue with: in many important respects their approach to data agency, data ethics, and data reciprocity are in line with our own. What is unworkable are the uglier aspects of human nature that will always manifest themselves in the thrall of any activity where the reward is a third-party — and therefore centralised — medium of exchange.

There is no getting round it: any form of “buying”/“selling” by definition requires a third-party medium of exchange to facilitate the activity — and whoever issues that medium can, and usually does, control those to whom it is issued.

Moreover, as our R&D has demonstrated in repeated trials, market forces potentially make such a system as the one Hu.manity.co proposes prone to data siloing — this time not on a corporate level but on an individual or collective social level.

The outcome for society, alas, is the same: a negative sum game whereby siloed data decreases in value due to it remaining unstructured by dent of being non-exchangeable at ever-lowering, “fair” market “prices”.

For example, Hu.manity.co outlines the scenario of users “selling” medical data to assist with cancer research. Sounds fine on the surface, right? Who doesn’t want to help with cancer research? The issue is, the motivation to do so is bizarrely inverted. To us, the “selling” of data for medical research purposes is an abhorrent, quasi-Dickensian proposition. It has about it the moral whiff of latter day body-snatchers who would in the Victorian era dig up corpses and sell them to doctors for medical research.

“Going once, going twice…” My31 “auctions” user data for medical research

The point is, where financial gain is the reward in and of itself, people’s morals tend to take a backseat to whatever action is required — however unscrupulous — to acquire the ever-greater numbers of units of exchange deemed necessary to meet the level of gain they feel they merit in such a system.

Meritocracy be damned, long live meritocracy!

To be fair, the drive to line users’ pockets with money, fiat or digital, is yet to present itself as an overwhelming motivation to download the My31 app — and that is not necessarily a good thing.

The app is targeting the health and life insurance agencies, which presumably pay top dollar for your data, similar to genetic testing companies. This is achieved on the app by way of a “bidding” system, whereby a user’s data goes to the highest bidder. Sounds like users might be able to cash in there, right?

Not exactly: users are paid in a “currency” called “Hu”, which is apparently only redeemable for, er, T-shirts.

You read that right. So… is Hu.manity.co suggesting T-shirts are in some way a “fungible” reward for top prices paid by pharmaceutical giants? Is there any chance of viewing price comparisons between the wholesale price of the T-shirts and the amount the pharmaceutical giants paid (presumably not in T-shirts) for the data in the first place?

Irrespective of what “Hu” is redeemable against (and their may be more redeemable options now or in the pipeline — we contacted them to comment but got no response) the question that really needs to be answered is why not simply give users the money the pharmaceutical companies pay for user data.

Bizarre. Only in a heavily centralised system could money paid by one party to another be diverted into tokens that are only redeemable for logo T-shirts.

See how fast an “economy” can progress from the ridiculous to the absurd in the absence of a truly decentralised system of data storage and distribution to lend it transparent and accountable community governance?

We digress.

The point is that the motivation to trade user data for cancer trials should be the cure of cancer itself, not the acquisition of units of monetary exchange.

My31’s economic system is open to — at best “interpretation” — at worst misuse and abuse on too many levels to be sustainable.

What if users felt the compensation offered for their data at — according to Hu.manity.co — “fair market compensation” was insufficient — after all we know how deep the pockets of big pharma are , right? — can users “bargain” for a better price? If not — and there is no mechanism whereby users can voice dissatisfaction over what amount the “market” deems “fair” — then who, what, why and where is dictating compensation levels?

Remember, this is against the backdrop of a global “data market” in which we are yet to see anything more formalised than a Wild West-style free-for-all with participants picking over looted spoils.

Presumably, a centralised system of some kind at some level (if only the economic system determining value) will be dictating/setting/modulating “fair market compensation” levels, as My31 is patently a marketplace…and we’re back at square one as regards the system being hijack-able by the vested concerns of large (pharmaceutical) corporate interests and tech incumbents.

None of this is to say data should not be securely controlled by users and released by them, as they choose, and to their immediate and direct benefit — of course it should. Hu.manity.co’s desire to ensure user data is stored securely and immutably is admirable, and aligns on many levels with our own aims and goals. That is why we are building what we are building. But the fundamental issue is that the motivation for reusing and exchanging data needs to be sustainable, egalitarian and fair.

Giving people more money does none of that; in fact, the reverse is true the more utilitarian the currency is shown to be (meaning the model is lose-lose, any way you approach it).

We need a new paradigm; a 180 degree shift on this soon-to-be-defunct pay-to-play model.

On Decentr — as we give user data itself a payable value — the motivation to choose to share information is the increase in a user’s payable and tradable data value that the sharing of data on our platform promotes.

In the cancer research example, as applied to Decentr, the motivation to share information thus becomes the motivation to realise the progression of cancer research, due to the fact shared user data achieves ever-greater value for the user who is sharing it as the research progresses. This puts in place a cycle whereby the generation of ever-greater amounts of useful data is a payable and tradable “reward” in and of itself, further encouraging the user to maintain updated information as part of ongoing cancer research — a positive reinforcement cycle that will inevitably expedite clinical trials and lead to new, life-saving treatments.

To us, this paradigm is unquestionably the correct human motivation for the acquisition of knowledge and socioeconomic progression — minus the sordid post-industrial desire to gather third-party monetary rewards along the way.

With the Decentr paradigm in place, the motivation becomes “cure cancer today” rather than sitting inside your own personal data silo cynically looking out at the world and thinking: “Hmm, maybe I can make a buck or two from this cancer bandwagon if I play my cards right — I’ll hodl on selling until my data price gets a better bid”. (A heartless “thank you” in that scenario from everyone who needs the treatment now.)

My31: claiming a “Human Right” that does not exist

Ultimately, the reason why Hu.manity.co’s consent ledger provides only a partial solution is actually embedded in the name of their project. They call it “My31”; alluding to the fact that “the 30 Human Rights ratified by the United Nations” do not explicitly address human data rights.

There is no human right for personal data, very true. And that surprises anyone?

How can you set up human rights around a system whose central construct has been explicitly used for millennia to oppress?

That system is any system backed by centralised money issuance, plain and simple.

Seriously, how would this hypothetical “Human Right 31” be worded:

“Every citizen shall have the inalienable right to choose slavish obedience in the absence of any viable alternative — the alternative being living off the grid with the hope the state does not find you and tax you for bartering roadkill.”

Come on! It’s wholly unworkable and — if you look closely — a borderline straw man argument to deflect from the points this article is raising.

The bottom line for any system that claims to promote real data sovereignty is that for it to work requires both the efficient storage and distribution of data. In this way, data itself becomes both the method and medium of exchange. That is the only viable way to ensure a next generation economy is designed and deployed to bring out the best in humanity and not the worst.

Feel free to get in touch with us for more details about Decentr, or with any questions or suggestions you might have, via the contact form on our website.