Civilizing the Information Frontier | Straight Talk

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A heavy industry CTO recommends a new protocol that makes data easier to share but harder to steal

By Dr. Reinhold Achatz, Chief Technology Officer, Thyssenkrupp

At this point, everyone knows that data can be used to create value, and the more data that is shared, the more value that can be created. However, until now, particularly in the business-to-consumer space, users have been asked to share that data without getting an adequate return. Many data-sharing platforms have been created, but they were designed in such a way that only one company really benefited. All social media platforms are based on this principle.

It was clear to us at Thyssenkrupp that this was not sustainable; no one will give away something valuable for free. That’s why we got involved with the International Data Spaces Association.

The association defines a protocol and a communications platform that makes it possible to share data in a selective way without losing ownership of that data. The protocol allows the data supplier to attach a software readable contract to each unit of data. This contract enables the supplier to limit the conditions for the use of the data shared with a partner: conditions for forwarding, duration of use, purpose and cost.

Coil and trouble

Thyssenkrupp volunteered to be the first beta tester for International Data Spaces, or IDS. We decided to try it with a very simple, straightforward use case: the logistics of our steel coil delivery.

In the Ruhr area of Germany, we have a lot of traffic jams. In the past, our logistics partner had a well-defined slot when they had to be at our premises to pick up one of the coils. Unfortunately, most of the time they didn’t make it on time. Either they were too early because they had expected a traffic jam but it was not as severe as they expected, or they were late because there was more traffic than they expected. Either way, they spent a lot of waiting time in front of our gate. This blocked the approach road and wasted the truck drivers’ time, sometimes as much as an hour. This created difficulties for us, too, because a steel coil weighs between 10 and 15 tons, and you can’t just run it up to the loading dock when the truck arrives for pickup.

Using the IDS protocol, we’re able to easily exchange information with the logistics company about the location of trucks and what they will pick up, while protecting sensitive customer information associated with the shipments. Because we know exactly when a truck is arriving, we save time at the loading dock and we save the truck drivers’ time. And because the waiting trucks no longer block the roads, we save a lot of time for other people. Obviously, this creates savings for everybody.

Our second experiment was more complex and involved developing contracts for 3D print files. Without a clear protocol, it’s not so easy to share 3D print files with everybody.  You can only share print files with handmade contracts. We wanted a way to share additive manufacturing files with partners without losing control of that data. Now with IDS, we can attach contracts to those print files that define the ways in which our partners can print those files.

At some point in the future, we hope to incorporate intelligent agents into the system that will be able to make a deal and negotiate a contract with partners who do not even know each other. 

We have been using a draft version of IDS built on sample code written by a team at Fraunhofer, the German research institute, and supported with German government funding. IDS has now released its first minimum viable product, a standardized system that is available to everybody – and we mean everybody. Although the association is built on European values, such as data privacy and security, equal opportunities, and data sovereignty for the data’s creator, its goal is to make IDS a neutral global standard. And as it is a standard open to all members, first member companies are offering software and services based on the standardized protocol, as well. 

Over 100 organizations from various industrial and scientific domains in 17 countries are now involved in the development of IDS, both software and industrial companies, and we are looking for more members. Smaller companies are also definitely welcome: IDS is designed to make data sharing between entities safe regardless of their relative size and financial power.

At the same time, the consortium is working with software providers to develop solutions based on the IDS protocols. We are talking to Deutsche Telekom, IBM, Atos SE, Huawei, HP and many others about how to use the system. Some smaller software companies are also getting involved, because they see an emerging opportunity in this new ecosystem.

Get involved now

Whether you are a major corporation or a tiny one, it would be advantageous to get involved now, as we are still setting the definitions of the program. For software companies, it is especially important to be involved because software standards tend to be defined very quickly. On the other hand, the earlier that a company with data comes in, the better opportunity it has to build smart data-sharing business models.

This is a very generic standard from my point of view.  It can be adopted by everybody.  It can even be adopted for communication with governments. At some point, the architecture will make it possible for intelligent software agents to create contracts between partners. From my point of view, the potential is nearly unlimited.

The Takeaways 

Data is valuable, but until now, companies have often had to give it away for free.

The International Data Spaces protocol will make it possible for companies to share information selectively.

The standards are still being written. To have a say about them, companies should get involved now.