Data Liberation: The Case For and Against

August 2, 2011
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I’ve been doing a great deal of research on Facebook, one of the main topics of my fourth book. Mark Zuckerberg’s company now sport more than 750 million worldwide users. Facebook’s walled garden intentionally prohibits access from certain sites, chief among them Google. That is, you can’t Google Facebook.

It’s also interesting to note that Facebook tries to stop people from exporting contact data from it. Case in point, the company recently nixed yet another data transfer tool. According to this cNet article:

Open-Xchange’s tool for helping people reconstruct their Facebook contact list on Google+ has fallen victim to Facebook’s revocation of its privileges.

Open-Xchange, a maker of open-source e-mail and collaboration software, last week launched a tool that used the company’s Social OX technology to help people assemble a list of their friends. It used connections to a combination of services such as LinkedIn and e-mail accounts to create a single “magic address book.”

The tool didn’t actually copy e-mail addresses from Facebook–only first and last names. It then matched those names to other e-mail records in the user’s accounts. But Facebook disabled the API (application programming interface) key that the software used to read the names, Open-Xchange Chief Executive Rafael Laguna said.

It’s hard to fault Facebook here. After all, its data is the source of all its value. Running a site with nearly 1 billion users can’t be cheap.

By way of contrast, a few Google employees launched a Data Liberation Project in 2007, a project that my friend Jim Harris recently mentioned to me. You can read the FAQ for yourself, but suffice it to say that there’s a philosophical chasm between the two companies here. For instance, it’s not hard to export your contacts out of Gmail and import them into a third-party app, database, or separate website.

Thoughts for Enterprises

So, should an organization allow its employees, users, and customers to easily get data out of its systems? I have mixed feelings. Let’s focus for a minute on employees.

On one hand, democratization of the data can be an overwhelming positive. In theory, end users can improve their data, adding fields and records that a centralized IT department would not think of doing. After all, each line of business (LOB) should know what it needs more than IT, right? What’s more, LOBs interact with employees, customers, vendors, and other partners very frequently.

On the other hand, liberation can be a dangerous thing. Once data is exported into standalone databases, spreadsheets, and applications, all hell can break loose. Master records can quickly spiral out of control. Employee and vendor records may soon contain conflicting, inaccurate, or incomplete information. To boot, it can take a great deal of time to reconcile any differences. User A may mark a vendor contact as John Smith while User B marks that same contact as Steven Johnson. This can lead to thorny issues such as:

  • Which one is right?
  • Was the invoice paid once, twice, or not at all?
  • Where do we turn to resolve the conflict?

Simon Says

Understand that data liberation has its pros and cons. Consider factors like the maturity of the end users, the number of systems affected by liberation, and the type of data being liberated before you let the genie out of the bottle. Also, don’t make the mistake of letting everyone have access to everything. Make decisions carefully based on business need.

The data liberation bell can’t easily be unrung.

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What do you think? What say you?