Big data can be a hard to grasp concept, but in order to make it more tangible many people refer to the three Vs: volume, variety and velocity. Indeed, this does help us to grasp the vastness of big data, but it misses the most defining characteristic of data in our contemporary lives – that it’s connected. We think connectedness is the key to unlocking the value in data in today’s digitally networked world.
Big Data is not only hard to grasp, but its hard to create value from. The problem is not only that most descriptions miss the key characteristic; it is that there is a massive push to erase it. That is, to anonymise, aggregate, and otherwise break the connections that are part and parcel of what the data is. Two things drive this: a misunderstanding about the fundamental nature of personal data; and a misunderstanding about ownership in the digital world.
Here’s the thing: we live in a connected world in which we neither singularly author nor own our data. This is an extremely important shift for us to get our heads around. As David Weinberger argues, we have reached an inflection point where it is impossible for one individual to know everything about a topic, to have the final word, or to define the ultimate, timeless truths. Knowledge, and the data that it is comprised of, is a collaborative, connected process – nobody can claim they own it.
Yet, ownership remains the reigning metaphor of how we seek to control and make sense of data. We need to stop using the physical world metaphor of ownership, with its behavior of locking our data away, and move to a metaphor that makes sense in the digital world – active use of our data to gain its benefits. Of course there will always be classes of data that we must restrict access to, like financial or health data. But limiting access of specific data to appropriate parties is not at all the same as trying to maintain ownership of that data.
We have great respect for the work Nesta does, but one of their 14 Predictions for 2014 is People Powered Data in which they suggest that this is the year that people will start to take back their data. First off, people can’t even keep up with their email and social media feeds and they certainly don’t want to take on the burden of data management that “taking it back” would require. More importantly, since 99+% of my personal data is made by interacting with others, how can this data be said to belong to “me”?
In our digitally networked society, data is the output of our digital interactions, like sharing on social media or conducting transactions with individuals and organization. We call this data “personal” because it is an artifact that tells something about an individual person – not because that person actually can claim unique ownership of the data. The current focus on ownership, and taking it back from others is framing the discussion in a very wrong way.
The popularity of this idea of data ownership is not just due to the erroneous application of physical property tradition to digital data. It’s also because so many businesses and organizations do a poor job of providing direct value to individuals in exchange for access to their data, treating the data with respect and being transparent about how the data is being used. Companies have the opportunity to treat personal data in ways that truly empower their customers, not by putting the burden of data management upon individuals (by giving them back their data), but to use this data to create more functionally and emotionally valuable experiences.
There are companies that have already recognized that their customer’s data is much too valuable and unique an asset to sell, but instead use it as an asset to create differentiated services. Nest is doing this already, and has a very simple personal data policy that explains how your collected data will be used by the product and that it will never be shared outside of this context. This immediately creates an environment of trust. Of course, now that Google has acquired them, Nest must continue to deliver against this promise as it grows the product line and potentially feels pressure from its new corporate owners. (The Nest press release about the acquisition has already provided a bit of drama – some people interpreted the text as watering down their stated policy; but this seems a tempest in a teapot, and subsequent commentary has reinforced Nest’s continued commitment.)
Moven, a virtual bank, is another company that replaces the concern of data ownership with the value of data through its use. Moven has a simple, transparent data policy similar to Nest that also supports a clearly understandable benefit – the Cred score. Unlike a traditional credit score that is beneficial to other parties rather than to the consumer, Moven customers set initial inputs to monitor what financial health means to them individually, which is the basis for the Cred score. Over time customers can see how their behaviors impact their score – which is directly understandable and meaningful to their personal life goals.
Developing this collaborative environment between company and consumer is of primary importance to move the dialogue from data ownership to valuable data use. Providing control to the individual to opt in and opt out of data collection can create a baseline of trust, as can being transparent about how and why data is being used, who it’s shared with, and clearly illustrating the tangible benefit to user of participating. If consumers can see a logical and equitable connection to the data you want to use and the benefit you will provide them, we can shift the personal data conversation to a much more positive place.
UPDATE 23 Jan: Ad Age has just posted data that supports this view: the vast majority of Americans surveyed perceive that Amazon uses their personal data to give better experiences, but that Google and (especially) Facebook take their data, or try to wrest ownership for their own gain.