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SolidLab Flanders supports data-driven innovation

To reinforce the trust of its citizens and help companies compete against internet giants, Flanders is leading the race to set a new standard in data protection. A EUR 7 million government investment is providing a major boost for the practical implementations of a technology called Solid. Three of Flanders’ leading universities are joining forces in SolidLab Vlaanderen.

Solid, a new standard for secure data exchange

The internet has become part of our daily life. Nevertheless, we often worry about the lack of transparency companies show when they collect our data. According to a recent study conducted by Flanders’ research center imec, 67% of Flanders’ citizens feel the same. Professor Ruben Verborgh (imec), affiliated with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is working together with Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, on what they call an extension of the existing internet to safeguard data, a technology called Solid.

Modern-day companies built their own way of storing and collecting their users’ data. Tim Berners-Lee calls this ‘data silos’ where each company protects its data from others, giving them a competitive advantage. The alternative proposed by Verborgh and Berners-Lee is a decentralized way of storing data, a personal data pod. If, for example, you migrate to another service, your data pod will move along with you. In that way, you can keep control over your own data and decide what you share, and with whom.

How would this work in practice? If you switch to a new bank, for instance, your personal data moves with you. If you change streaming services, your listening history gets transferred. Or imagine you change your e-mail address. Since all data is stored decentralized, there’s no need to inform all apps and services that you use about the change. Every organization or application connected to your data pod will get notified instantly. Data pods are best seen as a standardized way of storing personal data, just like JPEG files are for pictures, or PDFs are for documents. As a result, the playing field between small and big developers becomes leveled, since everyone uses the same way of handling data.

Helping companies securely handle citizens’ data

To support this development, the government of Flanders announced that it will be providing a major influx of financial support for research on Solid. Flanders’ Minister of Economy, Innovation, Work, Social Economy and Agriculture, Hilde Crevits, earmarked EUR 7 million for the first two years of a study on how Solid might be implemented practically. The study, a research project called SolidLab Vlaanderen, will be conducted by a consortium of three of Flanders’ universities (UGent, KU Leuven and VUB), and led by strategic research center imec. Are citizens ready to embrace data pods? Is this technology suited to help companies regain a competitive advantage over internet giants? What potential revenue models might exist? The research project aims to answer these and other such questions.

Flanders will be the first region in the world to widely implement Solid. In the spring of 2022, a data utility company will be established to help guard the secure exchange of users’ data between government organizations and businesses. In the areas of mobility and in the real estate sector, this can benefit all stakeholders involved and build trust between users and companies. Potential applications will all be based on Solid.

SolidLab, along with the establishment of a data utility company in Flanders, is a major step to keep Flanders ahead of the game in building a sustainable data economy.

Hilde Crevits Minister of Economy, Innovation, Work, Social Economy and Agriculture

Research that can benefit everyone

Data pods are a new idea to most people. Therefore, the development of an intuitive user experience is of the highest importance to SolidLab. Unlike confusing privacy pop-ups on most websites, platforms integrated with Solid will clearly state what personal data the user is sharing.

SolidLab Vlaanderen will make all its findings freely available in the form of whitepapers, scientific publications and open-source software. The research project will work closely with tech providers and app developers to boost the widespread adoption of Solid. What’s more, a software development kit will be released to help companies integrate data pods into their products.

We want to provide the tools so that users can regain control over their data and companies become more competitive. We are convinced that Solid will contribute to a paradigm shift in data security awareness while oxygenating the data economy. Flanders’ government strongly believes in Solid and seeks to pioneer the technology on a regional as well as a European level.

Prof. Piet Demeester (imec) head of SolidLab Vlaanderen