Tim Berners-Lee startup releases decentralisation tech to enterprises

Inrupt, a startup launched by World Wide Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee, has developed an enterprise-grade version of its decentralised web technology, allowing businesses and government organisations to build applications that give customers and users greater control of their personal data.

A handful of early-adopter clients – including NatWest Bank, the BBC, the Flanders government in Belgium and the NHS – have already begun piloting potential use cases for Inrupt’s Enterprise Solid Server (ESS).

The development marks an expansion of the company’s Solid Privacy Platform, which allows users to choose how and where their data is stored, as well as who has access to it, through the use of personal online data stores (Pods).

For the enterprise version, the Pods are held in the organisation’s Solid Server, but with the caveat that it is up to the user who can access their data and for what purpose. This means any applications built by the organisation on top of the platform must explicitly seek the user’s permission to use their data, which can be rescinded at any time the user decides.  

In the case of the NHS pilot, the Salford Royal NHS Foundation Trust, which has partnered with the Greater Manchester Combined Authority to deliver the Greater Manchester Digital Platform programme, is using Pods so that patients can eventually hold and control their own health and social care records.

The Digital Platform programme’s website says: “Patients sometimes feel a disconnect between themselves and the healthcare information that is kept about them, which is typically stored in multiple systems across a variety of healthcare settings.

“This often results in people having to retell their story to care providers who do not have shared or up-to-date information.

“People would like a way to manage their health record data that will allow them to add information they feel is important to share. This information can then, at the person’s wishes, be shared with friends and family involved in their care and wellbeing. Once this is available, the patient is able to share it further with their GP, community and acute services, where systems across the localities are not connected.”

Scott Watson, technical director at Salford Royal Hospital, told the BBC that Solid was a way of “storing all your data in one place, that is associated with you as an individual, and then all the different services that you interact with come to you – so you tell your story only once”.

For the BBC, on the other hand, the research and development team said Solid could provide users with individual data stores rather than lots of separate, service-specific stores that would otherwise need to be manually integrated.

This means that with user consent, the BBC will be able to make content recommendations based on data from other services the user is subscribed to, such as Netflix or Spotify.

In Flanders, the government is planning to use Solid as a way to engage with its six and a half million citizens, who will be able to store a range of important information in their Pods. This could include birth, marriage and death certificates and health and educational data, preventing users from having to manage disparate data across a number of government services and sites.

Inrupt CEO John Bruce told Computer Weekly that it was a purposeful decision to collaborate with these four organisations for the ESS pilots, because developing explicit use cases with large organisations would enable the company to scale Solid more quickly.

“Either I can persuade 65 million people in the UK individually, or I can persuade one entity who deploys this on your behalf,” said Bruce.

He added that getting Solid into the hands of millions of users at once – as with the Flanders deployment – would help people see the value much more quickly and therefore drive greater adoption.

Bruce said that unlike the current arrangement between users and application developers, whereby all kinds of data is mined without consent for the company’s profit, Solid could help create a more “inclusive capitalism” where people are more involved in how data about them is used.

“Vendor A says ‘you give me stuff, that’s now mine’,” he said. “Vendor B says ‘I’ll still provision the relationship with you, but you get to keep your stuff’ – now it’s up to you which way you go.” This could make companies more competitive over things like privacy and data protection, Bruce added.

Going forward, Inrupt will continue collaborating with large organisations to develop further use cases for its Solid technology.

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