“HestiaLabs puts our skills at the service of virtuous data entrepreneurs”, explains Paul-Olivier Dehaye

In 2017, mathematician Paul-Olivier Dehaye rattled Facebook by revealing how the company Cambridge Analytica had soaked up the personal data of millions of users of the social network in order to influence their votes in the US presidential election.

Now based in Geneva, this graduate of the prestigious Stanford University has launched HestiaLabs. His objective: that everyone can choose, with full knowledge of the facts, by whom their data is used and for what purpose. His method: to put his skills and those of his team at the service of virtuous projects in order to bring out alternatives that respect personal data. Here are some explanations.

by Charles Foucault-Dumas published on 10 May 2021


Paul-Olivier Dehaye, HestiaLabs'founder, at a data governance conference organized by the University of Geneva. Photo: Alain Herzog.

What is HestiaLabs?

HestiaLabs seeks to innovate around the use of personal data by exploiting the collective dimension of the problem. A lot of data from a lot of people is used today to solve a lot of issues, sometimes very lucrative. Every day we use very cheap or even free services exploiting data. Not necessarily very broad data, but on a lot of people.

HestiaLabs seeks to exploit a class of situations that involve fewer people than a Google, but with a greater variety of data. This is why we support the creation of local data collectives, at a city scale for example. We do not only consider the economic impact of the projects we choose to support but also their societal or scientific purpose.

You promise to “give users control over their data”. What doest it mean, in concrete terms?

We are going to bring out other options than the monoculture model of personal data use that we know today. In concrete terms, this means that to allocate your data to this or that project should be your decision and that you should have a real diversity of choice. Dominant business models cause massive collateral damage, such as misinformation or working conditions that compromise our social gains. A series of individual decisions led us to this situation.

What decisions?

The decision to entrust more and more of our data to the digital giants. I don't blame anyone, we didn't really have a choice. We had no alternatives. It's a bit like intensive farming. We have suffered it, not decided on it. In this sense, HestiaLabs' approach is comparable to all those that have appeared in recent years to encourage more local and responsible consumption: we want to create the short cycles of data!

“Dominant business models cause massive collateral damage.”

We hope that, tomorrow, everyone's data will be part of several short cycles, freely chosen. These short cycles are the projects that HestiaLabs supports. The difficulty lies in the transition: everyone adheres to the vision of a short cycle agriculture, but sourcing from local producers remains an arduous process as the established system makes it difficult for competitive alternatives to emerge. HestiaLabs aims to break down this barrier for users of digital services who want to regain control of their data. Any individual who subscribes to the idea that some of his/her Facebook interaction data can be used to understand and anticipate misinformation mechanisms, predict mobility patterns or contribute to a better digital education, can join, very simply, one of our projects.

Who is this individual likely to join you, your “target audience”?

The objective of HestiaLabs is twofold. It is both to propose new value cycles from existing data, but also to question the need to centralise all this data in the first place. Until recently, these two ambitions spoke to two distinct “audiences”. The people who were concerned about the valorisation of their data were not the ones who defended decentralisation, and vice versa. The gradual awareness of the public about the consequences of impetuous digitalisation is now bringing these two issues together into a growing demand for new services, with a different approach to the use of our data.

Everyone is affected, but perhaps not in the same time frame. Our data is already being used, but for some the impact is more visible than for others. For Uber drivers for example. Every 20 minutes, their task is determined by a predictive algorithm built on their work history. For them, the problem is obvious today. In terms of income, of course, but also in terms of the time they (cannot) spend with their families.

Are they not an exception?

They can be considered exceptions given the importance that these algorithmic decisions already have in their daily lives. But the trend is quite clear and we should all be aware of it as soon as possible so that we don't end up in what I call “a minority of 1”. Let me explain: algorithms are deployed as soon as they reach sufficient accuracy in the market. But in a world of personalisation, each of us may at some point find ourselves on the wrong side of some of these algorithms and be alone in this situation.

Increasingly, your digital footprints will be used to make automated decisions about you (hiring, insurance, getting a loan, housing ...). If your life path is unique, you will not fit into the schemes of some algorithms, and their decision will be wrong. The problem is that every life course is unique in one way or another. That's the thing about humans. We are all exceptions.

“That's the thing about humans. We are all exceptions.”

It is essential that we can gather together with our peers and make sure that these systems are adapted to the groups to which we belong. Today, however, the mechanisms of value creation and counter-power are located at scales that are far too distant from each other: on the one hand, global platforms, on the other, at best, a few small groups that are trying to propose alternatives. I would like to bring these two levels together, the creation of value and counter-powers.

How does HestiaLabs contribute to this?

HestiaLabs develops infrastructure (software, methods) to facilitate the emergence of alternatives in an ecosystem perspective. This approach presents a major challenge, which we are addressing: keeping the ecosystem coherent. This coherence is achieved both from a technical point of view, with interoperability, but also from a human point of view, by building trust at scales where we do not usually find it.

If I want to participate, what should I do? Do you have to be a geek to get involved?

Not at all. That's what HestiaLabs is all about. We take care of the “hard tech” part. Some of our projects are definitely for everyone, like mobility, disinformation, or data literacy. Their objectives are simple and clearly in the general interest: less traffic jam and pollution, less fake news, better understanding of the digital world. We are currently developing prototypes to meet these challenges. We will present them in the coming months.

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We also have more targeted projects, but not less accessible. Dating privacy is for dating apps users while For-hire drivers is for, well, VTC drivers. We help them create a collective and recover their data from the platforms.

Do you use Tinder or a dating app? Join Dating Privacy and enforce your rights.

Are you an Uber driver or other? Join For-hire drivers and get your rights respected.

You are already at the head of personaldata.io and MyData Geneva, why launch a third initiative around personal data?

Each of these projects responds to a different logic. Personaldata.io leads an activism around these issues. MyData Geneva is a local entry point into a global network of individuals and companies promoting digital self-determination. HestiaLabs is tackling the tough problem of the economic viability of these efforts, for a more data-friendly society. Synergies exist, of course.

Let's talk about “economic viability”. Diaspora* and Mastodon are Facebook-like social networks, Qwant claims to be a privacy-friendly Google... yet “nobody” uses them. Why should it be any different with HestiaLabs' “short cycle” alternatives?

The immense impact of my work on the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica affair and the success of the documentary The Great Hack that followed convinced me that it could work. I have plenty of ideas in stock and a solid partner who believes in the project. I can't not try.

I see more and more people becoming aware of the power of their personal data and understanding the need for such initiatives to succeed. In the short term, we can't compete with the convenience of the digital giants, or even claim to achieve the same quality of service. But our approach is to counter them with intangible “features”: trust, empowerment, self-determination. The goal of HestiaLabs is to develop a technical methodology that catalyses an ecosystem around these values.

You are known for your activism, is HestiaLabs your new tool to try to shake up these giants who make their fortune from our data?

HestiaLabs is a tool to solve a problem that will only get worse if we do nothing. The goal is not to topple the giants, but that, in the future, the entrepreneurs who make a fortune are those who respect those who contributed to their success with their personal data.

I understood it well with Facebook-Cambridge Analytica: the impact of my activism will remain very limited as long as it remains only activism and mine. HestiaLabs is a factory that puts my skills and those of my team at the service of the entrepreneurs wishing to propose alternatives.

Interview by Charles Foucault-Dumas.

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