Infrastructure!

No, this isn’t about Congress and the latest efforts to allocate funding to infrastructure. It’s a thoughtful whitepaper from October 2020 that I just got around to reading, the product of research by Siegel Family Endowment.

“Infrastructure: Building the Future We Deserve” resonates with me because it speaks to themes that reflect how I think about tech and innovation–ecosystem approaches and multidimensional solutions. It also does one of the best jobs I’ve seen of clarifying the three elements of infrastructure. Not just physical as in highways, bridges, and grids but digital as in broadband and social as in “the communities, organizations, and public spaces” that determine societal health and well-being.

As I was reading through it something else came to mind–how the credit bureau industry got its start and how that informed Descant and our Lumenous solution for micro and small enterprise. It is a “multidimensional” infrastructure story.

In the mid-19th century, two innovations transformed our economy. The first was bringing about interoperability in railways so that transcontinental transportation was feasible. That is a physical infrastructure story. Almost concurrently, telegraph technology reached usable and useful state. In effect, a step forward in infrastructure that could be considered physical and digital.

The combined impact was that people could do business with merchants beyond their local communities, opening up greater opportunities for merchants and consumers alike. But this opportunity also came with a problem. In your local community, social relationships and interactions established trust. How would you know you could trust a merchant at the other end of or really on any point along the railway or telegraph continuum?

That was the opportunity/gap into which the predecessor to Dun & Bradstreet stepped and from which the credit industry grew.

Back at the beginnings, methods to collect credit information (proofs of trustworthiness and creditworthiness) often looked like gossip. Was this merchant cheating on his wife or in transactions? Fast forward to the present and the gossip is amplified by way of tech-enabled surveillance and black-box algorithms.

My current interest in this infrastructure history and challenge extends to a new project I have been asked to take on by IEEE SA Open. It’s to develop a framework and potential standards and tools for data governance. As the name of the standards subset implies, my work would relate to open source software and open technology as well as open data. My hope is to extend it to data governance in uses of technology for humanitarian purposes.

Siegel’s work-product inspires me to build community and set goals for the project with that multidimensional origin story and ecosystem approaches in mind.

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