Personal APIs and Academic Libraries

Roger Schonfeld’s “Improving Privacy by Rethinking Architecture” post on The Scholarly Kitchen blog does an excellent job of exploring the question of privacy and third-party data collection for researchers and academic libraries:

By having comparatively little user activity data on their own hands, and fragmenting those data they do keep, libraries may feel they have sidestepped an ethical dilemma [researching anonymously]. But they surely have missed the opportunity to build the personalized discovery and research information management tools that scientists and other academics need. In doing so, libraries have underserved researchers and other users, putting themselves at a competitive disadvantage relative to other providers. But at the same time, they have not placed limits on the data gathering and usage of content providers and other vendors nearly as strictly as they often claim for themselves.

It’s a tricky issue, and Schonfeld adriotly underscores the irony of outsourcing research services as a means of exonerating your library, while at the same time forcing the community you serve into much more precarious conditions. And while steps need to be taken to manage the sharing of data with these third-party services, the deeper issue he gets is that our thinking assuming the current state of IT infrastructure. What if that infrastructure was designed in such a way that academics had control over the data they shared while doing their research. Not only as a means of privacy protection—though definitely that—but also as a means to extend such a “decentralized architecture” to serve as individualized research archives (a personal cyberinfrastructure).

I was excited Schonfeld highlighted the Personal API project Reclaim Hosting is working on with Brigham Young University presently, and I really liked the way in which he extrapolates the vision of providing students more control over their data to researchers controlling access to their own scholarly work, and changing some of the basic ways we understand sharing and publishing one’s work.

If successful, it is possible to imagine such a decentralized architecture being extended to serve the needs of a researcher account in terms of library resources and content platforms. Indeed, I have argued that a cross-platform user account controlled by the researchers themselves would bring vast improvements in the processes of authorizing access to an appropriate copy of an information resource, while dramatically improving one’s control of one’s own data. Such an architecture represents a sea-change compared with today’s systems and it is no small thing to imagine the costs and logistical complexities of a transition.

The logical and political complexities of such a transition are no small thing to say the least. And while organizations like BYU that have visionary folks like Kelly Flanagan and Phil Windley leading the charge are rare, Schonfeld’s final note suggests quite hopefully that alternatives are both possible and important:

Even so, the work that Reclaim Hosting and BYU are undertaking is more than just experimental. It suggests that, when the political and organizational stars align, an entirely different architecture for the control of user data is possible.

That is so awesome, and why not? The time has come, and I know for certain that numerous other institutions are keen on what the folks at BYU are doing, and are prepared to double down on giving people more power over the online identities, personal data, and digital domains. Reclaim is in the air!