5 Highlights of SolidLab 2022-2023

What is SolidLab’s unique contribution to the development of the Solid ecosystem in Flanders and how does SolidLab view Solid in an international perspective? A review of the five highlights of SolidLab 2022-2023 provides answers to these questions.

The Solid Monitor

The insights from the Solid Monitor 2022 and Solid Monitor 2023 — a yearly survey on a representative sample of the Flemish population — are followed with great interest, both in Flanders and internationally. Organizations interested in developing a personalized service for the end user have many questions about the way in which they best communicate with the end user about a Solid-based service. Is the Solid technology something that remains hidden in the background or is it better to explain the technology explicitly? And if so, in what terms and in which step of the user experience?

The Solid Monitor provides insights into the drivers for citizens to use a Solid-based service. Above all, simpler and cheaper services, and a healthier life seem to be important drivers for the use of Solid in the Flemish population. In addition, the Solid Monitor also provides insights into the type of organizations that are most trusted when it comes to sharing personal data, with governments (particularly the Flemish Government) and institutions such as hospitals and universities as frontrunners. Finally, there is also a differentiation in the various subpopulations in Flanders, with the Privacy Pioneers (34%) and the Worryless Weathercocks (40%) together providing an interested market share of more than 70%, and the Suspicious Stragglers (26%) as a target group to be extra careful with in the market development around Solid.

In the coming years, the Solid Monitor will continue to offer a frame of reference for further research, such as an exploration of the mapping between the market domains where Solid is gaining traction (see the Solid in action snapshot) and the Solid adoption by the subpopulations described above.

The magic of linked data

Linked data is the crucial ingredient that differentiates a Solid data vault from the broader range of personal data management solutions. There are many companies and organizations on the market that offer services — whether or not in the form of data vaults — to help citizens gain more transparency and agency regarding their personal data on the web. The Solid standard allows us to go a step further and make sure your data actively works for you. In addition to a transparent overview of your existing data sharing, Solid mainly serves to get more out of your existing data and to support what matters to you most in life: making your life simpler and healthier.

To make your data work for you, it must be findable and usable by external organizations, even organizations for which we cannot yet predict their reuse of existing data. Making data technically discoverable and reusable across business contexts is what we mean when we talk about making data interoperable, and linked data is the ideal way to achieve that interoperability via international standards. In concrete terms, linked data means that you do not simply publish data in document format (e.g., in the form of a PDF), but that data fields are published individually and become machine-readable. This is possible by making the data semantically rich so that applications that are granted access to your data can automatically and correctly interpret what each data field means. Linked data allows us to make the data in the Solid data vaults or pods (short for personal online data store) work for citizens, even outside the context of the first use cases for which they were initially placed in the Solid pod. This is of course a crucial aspect to allow the valorization of the data in Solid pods to grow exponentially.

Linked data makes Solid pods extremely versatile, but currently only a limited number of experts fully master the technology. The limited availability of linked data expertise in the market means that technology providers who develop software and services based on the Solid standard sometimes struggle to leverage the full potential of linked data. That’s why the “What’s in a pod?” publication had a significant impact on the international Solid community, and in particular on how people think about the use of linked data. Combining linked data and the Solid standard, and making this technology accessible to a broader set of organizations is at the heart of our research expertise at SolidLab and by extension our partners at Digital Flanders and Athumi, Europe’s first data utility company. In the next section we highlight how the magic of linked data gives us a leading role in the international market development around Solid by enabling ecosystems.

Ecosystems versus use cases

For the past two years, pilot projects based on Solid have been in the pipeline in various regions in Europe, but also in the US, Australia and Asia. However, these usually involve rather isolated use cases of a specific player from the public or private sector and often involve pilot projects where there are still hurdles to overcome before a long-term service is established.

Flanders is the first region where an ecosystem is developed from the start, with the explicit intention of bringing together use cases from different segments of the public and private sector in an interoperable ecosystem. This means that we are not only exploring and pushing the boundaries of the Solid technology, but also include interoperable data models from the start, promote a uniform user experience for citizens, search for shared revenue models for the organizations involved, and contribute to an interoperable governance framework that suits all players in the ecosystem.

Because of the secondary reuse of data, the Flemish ecosystem vision makes the potential of the Solid technology — based on the magic of linked data — much more tangible compared to isolated use cases. This is evident from the international interest we are currently receiving, with the Netherlands and the United Kingdom as some of the next regions that are ready to make the leap to the ecosystem vision. In both countries, various organizations in the public and private sectors have already explored the Solid technology — whether or not in the form of a pilot project — and are now considering interconnecting existing initiatives into an interoperable ecosystem, as well as connecting to the international Solid network. It is precisely to achieve interoperability in all necessary areas (i.e., technical, semantic, legal, and when it comes to governance, revenue models and user experience), that they seek inspiration at SolidLab and Athumi in Flanders.

This ecosystem vision which has its origins in our linked data approach of the technical component of SolidLab, also extends into the research of the societal component of SolidLab. Together, this integrated research approach of our researchers who work on governance, the legal framework, user experience and business models make SolidLab a unique one-stop-shop in the Solid landscape.

Solid community

Building ecosystems obviously requires a broad community with many different stakeholders who we want to inform about all aspects of personal data on the web in general and Solid in particular. Among those stakeholders we include market players who build products and services on top of the Solid standard (such as Athumi, Inrupt, Digita, Datavillage), but also organizations from the public and private sector that would like to provide personalized services to citizens. Among the stakeholders we of course also count representatives of the citizens themselves, whether they are interested citizens, members of the press, or, for example, patient organizations. The purpose of the community is not only to disseminate knowledge, but above all to create alliances of stakeholders who want to realize a specific project together.

The Flemish Solid community work in the first two years of SolidLab started as a local Flemish community under the management of Digital Flanders, with SolidLab in a supporting role. In the aftermath of COVID19, these meetings were still held digitally, but in 2022 it became possible to see each other in person again, which accelerated the formation of alliances. Initiatives such as the HR project SHARCS led by Randstad, and the media sandbox Solid4Media led by the VRT, are two concrete projects that emerged from the first two years of the Solid community.

However, the Flemish Solid community, with its in-person meetings and the resulting projects, is only part of the broader community work in which SolidLab is internationally involved. For example, SolidLab researchers are often guests as speakers at the (Solid World) events of the international Solid community. In addition, we have many active collaborations with foreign research groups working on Solid or Solid-related research, such as the University of Oxford, Trinity College in Ireland and the Vienna University of Economics and Business, to name three groups with whom we actively collaborate.

Solid in perspective

Of course, the Solid ecosystem is not an island, but our goal is to interweave Solid with the other data sharing initiatives that are emerging internationally. Consider the various European initiatives around building data spaces, the work of the International Data Space Association (IDSA), the Gaia-X network around sharing sensitive corporate data, the MyData network for managing personal data on the web, and the various ID wallet initiatives of the European Commission.

At SolidLab we work closely with Athumi (but also with Vito and Digita) to represent the Solid community on the international stage and to connect with the various international initiatives regarding data sharing as mentioned above. At a technical level, this means that we map Solid onto the reference architectures of, for example, IDSA and the ID wallets. At a community level, this meant that in 2023 we were represented together for the first time at the annual MyData conference and featured Solid in a significant percentage of presentations and panels. These dialogues are of utmost importance to us.

The most notable collaboration of SolidLab 2022-2023 was a series of workshops at the start of 2023 on personal data technology on the web, organized by Interoperable Europe. In this series of three workshops on personal data spaces, the last of which was hosted by SolidLab in Ghent, we brought together a broad set of European stakeholders, including technology companies, research institutions and representatives of European governments to (1) arrive at a common conceptual framework of the personal data landscape on the web, (2) to identify what challenges we see around merging the various existing initiatives into an interoperable ecosystem, and (3) to outline a common roadmap for the coming years. We have taken up the commitment to build upon this roadmap in the research programme of SolidLab 2024-2025.