The Big Pink Elephant of DataPortability

Big part of my new job is to make recommendations regarding which community initiatives Yahoo! should consider getting involved with. Given the recent attention received by the yet-to-be-defined DataPortability organization, it was only natural for it to come up in multiple conversations.

A few months ago I explained why I personally decided to leave the DataPortability group. Now I would like to explain why I am recommending Yahoo! to stay away as well. Obviously, I only mean to stay away from the organization, not the actual principal of openness and data sharing which are at the core of Y!OS.

I agree with many of the smart individuals who are still listed as members of the DataPortability group, that it had at least accomplished creating a common term and started a significant discussion around the topic. Regardless if the literal meaning of the term is misdirected, it is now being used as an umbrella term for all things open in the social space. This is not a small accomplishment and I am happy to give credit when credit is due.

In many public and private conversations, members of the OAuth, OpenID, and Microformats communities tried to convince the primary leaders of the DataPortability group to focus only on marketing and public relations. Everything else must be out of scope, from making technical recommendations to writing pecifications and defining best practices. Obviously this advice fell on deaf ears, although there seems to be a pretty scary difference between positive responses we’ve received in person, to the rhetoric made in written public responses.

The DataPortability group does not speak on behalf of any of the standards they decided to promote, a process which by itself has never been properly explained. The only exception being APML, which was suspiciously included in the list of well established community and industry standards, as it has been written and endorsed
by a leading member of the DataPortability group. The topic of the selection criteria for endorsement has been discussed numerous times on the public mailing lists, but remains unresolved.

At the end of the day, success in this space comes from leverage – from having something to offer the big players whose support is so highly desired. Key members of the OAuth, OpenID, Microformats, and other communities have the real power of being able to facilitate both discussions and changes to standards in order to accomplish adoption by the major players in the space. While these are still community-driven efforts, the most significant work is done behind the scenes.

Using OAuth as an example I am intimately familiar with, everything was done in the open and the community always had the final say, but much of the prep work and negotiation were (and still are) done using backchannels where corporate participants are more comfortable discussing adoption and key issues. It is also the only viable arena for complex discussions of Intellectual Property Rights and other legal issues which are part of any standard work. Politics never works in a public mailing list.

Being able to meet with companies as a knowledgeable member of the community and propose changes needed in order to allow them to adopt the standard has been critical in getting traction. Please note I am not suggesting any actual ownership or official role within the community, just that my involvement allows to me facilitate this kind of interaction.

The work done by these key members is rarely public until it is ready to be presented to the community, and OpenID would be another perfect example for this kind of work. It involves very little credit or acknowledgment – only the actual accomplishment is celebrated as it should be. This work has produced many successful results and initiatives than the DataPortability group will ever be able to claim.

The DataPortability group doesn’t have the power to negotiate changes to these standards that will both enhance compatibility, but more importantly allow greater adoption. The common practice when someone has an opinion in support of other people’s standards and ideas is to blog about it, not to start a bureaucratic organization just to amplify these views and call it a movement.

The obvious reply from the DataPortability folks to any complaint made is to suggest joining the group and help answer these questions. But when anyone actually follow this advice, the answer is a discussion-ending suggestion to form yet another workgroup where any complaint will be buried away from public eyes. Seriously, how many workgroup, committees, and sub-communities are going to be created before someone realizes that the DataPortability group isn’t the federal government.

The DataPortability members are making demands but offering little new. They pick a choose standards, mix and match them, and then expect others to abide by their so called technical recommendations. Yahoo! knows how to call Google, Facebook, AOL, MySpace, Microsoft, Plaxo, and others. In fact, people don’t realize just how much these companies talk to each other on a daily basis. Big players don’t need the DataPortability group to help them facilitate a conversation.

Cool stuff is coming from Yahoo! and I am excited to be part of it. It will be open, portable, and deliver the promise of putting the users in control of their data. I invite the members of the DataPortability group to continue discussing ideas, promote open standards, give us feedback, and to continue doing the one thing they actually do very well – talk about data portability.

7 thoughts on “The Big Pink Elephant of DataPortability

  1. I was all for the DataPortability group when I first heard of it but all this talk without substance has helped no one.
    I would be glad if Yahoo stayed away from the group. It’s been sad to see companies like google and facebook jump on the term and do what ever they want with it.
    It’s just turned in to politics. Just a term. Like Pro-Life or Pro-Family. Who is anti-life or anti-family? Terms mean nothing and are simply PR for an idea.
    But with out a clear message behind DataPortability it’s already become mostly a joke.

  2. I think you have some good points about Data portability. I am a big proponent of OpenID, OAuth microformats and other open standards. I think Data Portability has the most useful role to play in promoting these standards and raising awareness about how the individual open components can be combined to provide usable solutions for the development community.
    For example, How can OpenID be combined with OAuth and microformats to create a federated Single Sign On capability for connected web sites. I see this as having incredible potential in the HealthCare world where consumer solutions are often stitched together from the web platforms of multiple players. The current result for consumers is a disconnected web experience – even when using services from the same provider.
    It is this potential that got me creating HealthCampMd – check out the BarCamp event at
    It is happening on June 14th in Owings Mills MD.

  3. Unlike what some people think, I am not suggesting or wishing DP to go away, simply that I see no reason to get involved or get my employer involved with the work done by the group. I think DP can add great value if focused on PR and evangelism, which will avoid the big can of worms IPR issues bring when creating new standards.

  4. There seems to be a “big pink elephant in the room” problem. Is it a snake? Is it a pillar? Take a look at “what is the dataportability project” page on the DP wiki.
    “Promoting the use of existing standards that enable data portability”
    “We are not a group focused on creating new technologies”
    DP is not about creating new standards. There are no IPR issues. DP is focussed on PR and evangelism. But having said that, DP is also a group that is evolving. It is not now what it was in Jan.
    But mostly I just find this post strange. I find it hard to understand why the Yahoo! Social Platform Open Standards Evangelist and a leading light in the development of a crucial open standard (oAuth) would not want to exploit a group promoting open standards. Isn’t it just one of many approaches that Yahoo! ought to engage in, in order to promote its view and actions in this space?

  5. Eran – if you click on the links of the page you refer to regarding the technical specifications, you will actually find they are recomending existing standards. I’m not quite sure what the point of standards are, if everyone is going to have their own standard?
    The use of the word “must” is the recommendation of the DataPortability Project, that this is the best standard around due to adoption, profile or sophistication. Contentious ones like RSS and Atom I am told, will be dually supported because whilst RSS has greater profile and is easier to implement, Atom is technically superior and gaining traction – and that’s a rare case. The Project is perfectly entitled to suggest what standard that they think is best, just as you are. I’m not sure how this is a bad thing? And who cares what the actual standard is – the point is, we have one. If you violently disagree to the standards we support, I’m sure the technical guys will listen and respond. One more time: we need consistent standards for them to actually matter, and the DataPortability Project is taking a stand on what those standards should be – an independent organisation with no corporate bias.
    You mention you tried to talk to the primary leaders of the DataPortability Project about convincing us to do otherwise. Well I am a co-founder, and have never heard from anyone. My role in the Project is no secret either as I drive most of the work we do. Paul Jones, another co-founder and who leads the technical group, has also never been approached. Julian who commented above and is very active – are you sure you’ve approached him? I know you prefer the back channels, but it’s hard to know your concerns if that’s where you hide.

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