VRM, Personal Clouds, and Information Architecture

If you found this page by way of the 2013 IA Summit, welcome and thanks for visiting. The projects and services mentioned on the Turning Grille poster are linked below, along with others I didn’t have room for. I hope you’ll take a few minutes to check them out and learn more about the important role information architecture will play in the development of Vendor Relationship Management and Personal Clouds.

Image of the poster

1The Turning Grille poster presented at IA Summit 2013.

Click here to download a PDF of the “This Guy” Turning Grille poster.


VRM (Vendor Relationship Management): If CRM (customer relationship management) is about the systems and processes that companies use to market to their customers, VRM is about systems and processes that allow customers to manage their interactions with companies. From the Project VRM wiki:

VRM tools provide customers with both independence from vendors and better ways of engaging with vendors. The same tools can also support individuals’ relations with schools, churches, government entities and other kinds of organizations.

To vendors, VRM is the customer-side counterpart of CRM (or Customer Relationship Management). VRM tools provide customers with the means to fulfill their side of the relationship burden. They relieve vendors of the perceived need to “capture,” “acquire,” “lock in,” “manage,” and otherwise employ the language and thinking of slave-owners when dealing with customers. … Customers are involved as fully empowered participants in the vendor-client relationship, rather than as captive followers.

In October of 2012, I gave a talk on VRM and Information Management at InfoCamp Seattle.

Personal Cloud: A personal cloud is an internet-connected hub of data and relationships used by an individual user or thing. A personal cloud can be thought of as one logical point of storage, even though the actual data may be stored on different physical servers. In contrast to current cloud services which aggregate the personal data of large numbers of individuals in order to provide a narrow range of services, personal clouds host one individual person or thing’s data so that multiple services can connect to it.


These links are primarily curated from a longer list of development projects on the Project VRM wiki.


These organizations are developing the core ideas behind VRM and personal clouds, and are advocating for their adoption.

  • ProjectVRM: a research and development project housed at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University. Founded by Doc Searls in 2006, ProjectVRM is the hub of the vendor relationship management community.
  • Customer Commons: a non-profit organization dedicated to restoring “the balance of power, respect and trust between individuals and organizations that serve them” through education, research, and advocacy.
  • Personal Data Ecosystem Consortium: an industry association for companies that promote personal control over personal data.
  • Respect Network: The Respect Network is at the forefront of architecting the technical, semantic, and legal frameworks for personal clouds. Their Respect Trust Framework is a contract that ensures individual control and protection of personal data.

Standards and Frameworks

Here are a few of the core technologies on which personal clouds are being built.

  • KRL (Kinetic Rule Language): program Live Web interactions
  • UMA (User Managed Access): user control of data sharing and access between online services
  • XDI: OASIS semantic data interchange “standard for sharing, linking, and synchronizing data over digital networks using structured documents (e.g. JSON and XML) and Extensible Resource Identifiers (XRIs)”

Personal Data Management

These companies are building personal cloud-type services that you can use today.

Books, Slides, and Videos

Wikis and Mailing Lists

Where does Information Architecture fit in?

For a long time, VRM and personal clouds have been in the incubation phase. Long discussions on the mailing lists have centered around core concepts: identity, trust, semantics, internet marketing practices, and so on. Pioneering work has been done around standards and architecture, and early VRM-based services have been built and are slowly being introduced to consumers.

Now, in early 2013, it’s clear that momentum is building towards the approach that the VRM community espouses. Users have become increasingly frustrated with ad tracking technology and are increasingly less willing to trust social services with personal data. In the US, Congress is considering legislation to block or severely limit ad tracking technologies, while in the EU privacy legislation has already been adopted. Moreover, as users are becoming weary of seeing beloved online services acquired and shut down or restricted; as they become leery of free services that survive on collecting and selling personal data, platforms like App.net that deliver user-driven and developer-friendly services for a modest fee are gaining traction among the bleeding-edge geek community that has always been the bellwether for broader changes online.

Which is all to say that the time is ripe for information architects to get involved with these movements in a major way.

There are two primary areas in which IAs can provide value to personal cloud initiatives: metadata design and user experience.

Taxonomies, ontologies and metadata will drive the VRM-enabled world of tomorrow. In order for a personal cloud ecosystem to take hold, clouds and services need to be able to communicate. The personal graph that I host in my cloud better be accessible to tomorrow’s Facebook-like service if I want to benefit from whatever they have to offer. If I want to track my things I need a way to know that they’re mine, what properties they have that I’m interested in, and how I expect them to notify me when something’s wrong. If my bank or doctor need access to my financial or medical records, I need to provide access in a way they can understand (and I need to be able to time-limit or role-limit that data).

And, as I’m sure you’ve started to sense by now, once the user becomes the point of integration for their own data, they’ll have a lot of it to manage. How will any individual manage all the relationships, time-limited access, images, text, and quantified data they store in their personal cloud? Good information architecture will be the key to helping users find and understand their personal data ecosystem.

I’ve referenced just a few of the projects and companies that are building this new world. I hope you’ll read more about them and reach out to participate in the online conversation. And if you do get involved with a personal cloud project, let me know. I’d like to be able to track how IA and VRM affect each other over time.

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  1. Stuart, great job assembling all the relevant links in one place. I’m really looking forward to a very productive intersection of the IA community and the VRM and personal cloud communities.