Stump the Geeks

Data portability beginning to catch on

September 30, 2012 

It’s not often Adam Covati writes code as a gift.

But when his sister’s dog passed away about a year ago, he struggled to find an easy way to turn all the photos she had posted online into a more permanent keepsake. Instagram, the mobile photo service his sister used to capture most of her memories, doesn’t provide an easy way for users to download all the photos they take.

So with the same skills he used to found the Durham-based marketing software firm Argyle Social, where he serves as chief technology officer, he wrote a program to download the photos himself. Digital images in hand, he presented his sister with a printed book of every photo she took of her lost pet.

“She was blown away, because she didn’t have any of these pictures printed out,” Covati said. “It wasn’t easy for her to get access otherwise.”

You shouldn’t need a programming background to get the statuses, photos and other content you post using online services. That philosophy – data portability – is beginning to catch on with tech companies that provide information and communication services to customers.

Take Facebook for example. In April, the social networking site announced a major expansion to a feature that lets you save everything you’ve posted on Facebook in one easy step. Just log in, navigate to “account settings” and click “Download a copy of your Facebook data.”

And although it’s not available yet, Twitter’s chief executive told a crowd at the Online News Association Conference a few weeks ago that users will be able to download their personal archive of tweets by the end of the year.

Peace of mind

So why does data portability matter for the average user? For one, data portability allows for peace of mind.

If they’re active on any social network – LinkedIn, Facebook, Instagram or Twitter – users spend an enormous amount of time cultivating their public (or private) personas. These services’ terms and conditions can change at any time, and it’s nice to know you won’t lose your digital resume or family photos if the site closes up shop.

Third-party services are even available to provide that specific backup option. Backupify (free to $19.99 a month) allows users to automatically backup social media services as well as applications like Gmail and Google Drive.

Data portability also gives consumers more options. If you don’t like a service, it’s much easier to leave if it’s not holding your valuable data hostage.

That might seem like a disincentive for companies looking to hold on to their users, but Covati said he’s seen it as a selling point for some services looking to attract savvy consumers.

Lower priority

For startups (although it’s been awhile since we could legitimately call Facebook and Twitter “startups”), data portability options aren’t often on the top of the priority list. But Covati said that’s beginning to change.

“I don’t think it’s standard yet. It’s something younger services don’t offer right away,” Covati said.

“That being said, people are getting more sophisticated and laws are getting stricter.”

Until we reach that tipping point, Covati said it’s typically a good idea to look for data portability options when trying out new ways to digitally document our lives – especially if we plan on keeping that data for a long time.

“Before you pour your heart into a service, it’s something you need to make sure you check,” Covati said.

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