FEATURE1 December 2011

The personal information economy


The internet is littered with personal details. James Kennedy of The Future Laboratory looks at how people are wresting back control of their information.


People are sharing information at an increasing rate: what they like, how they feel, what they have bought and where they are. In 2010, according to IDC, web users created 900 exabytes of personal information. To put that in perspective, six exabytes is what you would have if you sequenced the genomes of every person on earth. More than 100 million active Twitter users produce 230 million tweets a day, while Foursquare’s six million users checked in at more than 380 million locations last year alone.

“The internet has evolved from a web of pages into a web of people. The next step in its evolution is to become a web of the world, in which every piece of data is attached to whoever created it”

The result of all this sharing is that the internet has evolved from a web of pages into a web of people, to borrow the words of Microsoft’s Marc Davis. The next step in its evolution is to become a web of the world, in which every piece of data is attached to whoever created it, who they know and where it was produced. Some of the most prominent companies on the planet – Facebook and Google to name two – are almost completely dependent on their user base (and what they know about it) for commercial gain.

When you write someone a letter you don’t expect the postman to open it, read it, see that you mention a potential beach holiday in Europe and slip in a coupon for cheap flights to Spain before resealing it. But that, in effect, is what free web-based email services do with your messages. Anyone who uses free services like these is not so much a customer as a product.

Consumers’ increased awareness that companies were using their data in these ways initially led to outrage and in some cases legal action. Now, data-savvy web users are looking to harness ubiquitous data collection for their own ends. In a recent study by Future Poll 84% of UK consumers said they would be willing to share personal information with companies in exchange for cash or rewards. Facebook and Google understood that this data had value long before consumers did, and have already put in place the infrastructure to mine it. Now start-ups are enabling people to wrest back control of their data. These are the beginnings of a personal information economy where consumers manage, trade and track their information in ways that benefit them.

New services
The personal information economy gives customers the ability to turn the lens back on those who are monitoring them. Browser plug-ins like Ghostery (see box below) can help us track those who track us. Users rarely choose to use this information to opt out of the monitoring of their information, according to Scott Meyers, CEO of New York-based online security firm Evidon, which produces Ghostery. “People just want to know what is going on,” he says. “That is a bigger trend than people who want to take action to shut down their relationship with the information economy. It is about transparency more than anything else.”

For those more comfortable with sharing their data with brands, services like Allow help people take control of the monetary value of their personal data. “When people sign up to Allow, we ask them to self-select into one of four attitudinal segments,” says CEO Justin Basini. “Only 10% of our members choose to not share their data with anybody. The other 90% self-select into a range of different attitudes, from ‘I like sharing my data with brands that I like, and I want to receive relevant contact from those brands with my permission’ to ‘I don’t care where my data goes as long as I get a cut of the action’.”

“A shift that puts control of personal data back in the hands of the public could lead to better-organised data on consumers for the business world”

So the positives for consumers appear numerous. But this doesn’t necessarily mean that consumer power need be at the expense of brands. A shift that puts control of personal data back in the hands of the public could lead to better-organised data on consumers for the business world. Used correctly, this data can allow brands to provide services that are more tailored and to intervene in their customers’ lives, as with KLM’s recent Surprise campaign. The airline used social media to find out about passengers’ likes and dislikes. Then it gave them presents. Working out from one Linda Bomhof’s Twitter feed that she was a keen runner, for example, enabled KLM to surprise her at the departure gate with the gift of a Nike+ strap so she could measure her runs while on a weekend trip to Rome.

The future
As a result of the growth of personal reputation services such as PeerIndex and Klout, consumers are beginning to measure influence and reputation in greater detail, and those who possess significant influence online are starting to see value attributed to it. This will give rise to a personal reputation economy, where an influential personality can earn cash by marketing their reputation to brands. Services like Empire Avenue are already gamifying reputation measurement by letting people watch their share price rise and fall on a ‘social stock market’.

“Version one of social media has focused on how many friends and followers you have, and not on being all that nuanced,” says Jim Adler, chief privacy officer of information commerce agency Intelius. “Klout has done some interesting things around Twitter, because it is trying to be proactive in saying who has the most influence. If you use traditional human engagement models as a guide, we always want to engage with who is influential, who has prestige and knowledge in an area, not just with who is popular.”

The data groundwork for the personal information economy has been laid without most people being aware of it, but for a group that The Future Laboratory calls self-quantifiers, the accumulation of personal data has been a proactive process. These innovators measure their daily movement through Jawbone’s Up bracelet (see box below), their sleep patterns using the Zeo Sleep Coach and their weight, body fat and lean muscle percentages with the Withings wifi body scale. They track as much of their lives as possible with the aim of optimising their performance. The philosophy of Kaizen, the Japanese term for continuous improvement or change for the better, is set to spread to the wider population as technologies like these become more accessible. Future Poll recently found that 20% of UK adults have used apps or websites to track their health. Among 18- to 34-year-olds, this rises to 36%.

“As you get closer to the idea of a central repository of the most important data in your life, you gain the ability to do analytics, to become smarter about who you are, to live a better life, a safer life, a healthier life,” says Shane Green, CEO of personal data aggregator Personal.com. Such tools, he says, should not just be in the hands of companies. “They should be in the hands of individuals looking to become smarter about who they are.”

Power through knowledge

Some of the tools that make it easy for people to manage information about themselves.

This browser plug-in lets users monitor web applications such as advertising networks, behavioural data providers and web publishers who might be tracking their data.

Using the tagline ‘What are you worth?’, Allow is a tool that lets users control which companies are permitted to contact them and which aspects of their personal information these companies get access to. It gives companies a way to market to people more efficiently and to give people a monetary value for their data.

A suite of products to help people remove or correct private information that appears about them online, with prices starting at a few pounds a month.

The speaker and Bluetooth technology specialist recently released the Up bracelet, which tracks your eating, sleeping and movement patterns in conjunction with an iPhone app. It’s designed to let you track physical activity 24 hours a day, not just when you’re exercising.

James Kennedy is quant trends analyst at Future Poll, the research division of The Future Laboratory

1 Comment

12 years ago

Shane, I'm a llitte late I read the TechCrunch and Mashable articles and didn't see this blog post until I spotted the link from the Personal Data Ecosystem Consortium announcement but from one PDEC Startup Circle member to another, congratulations to you and the entire team at Personal. Let the data now be shared.=Drummond

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