Who’s Data Is It Anyway?

I’ve had many conversations, both professional and personal, with people about data and who owns it. From my more conventional friends I often get the comments like, “It’s my data. Companies should give it to me or pay me for it.” Which often unveils a deeper intent to try and get in on the monetization of data. My thoughts similarly stem from financial investments, but to the contrary, I respond, “You didn’t pay to build the systems that capture the data, nor do you pay the various costs associated to keep those processes and people in place. So why should you think the data is yours?”

This morning, the NY Times ran an article by Natasha Singer on the need for open consumer data. She runs through a set of examples regarding cellular carriers having location data, energy companies having consumption data, and health clubs having utilization/attendance data. All of which she was unable to access freely; none of which was shared openly. Singer bounces off of various topics trying to illustrate the need for more data transparency from companies, but fails to make clear the simple points embedded in her article that will limit any effective data sharing in the near-term. Specifically, three (3) cultural aspects of how we view data must coincide:

  • Movement from anonymity to named users on the Internet
  • Change in privacy law to reflect digital rights management (at the data level, beyond intellectual property)
  • Creation of analytic marketplaces (think of this as “Analytics-as-a-Service”)

Changes in these three aspects of our culture will seed the one, broad change Singer and other open data advocates desire: a data-driven society.

First things first. Why these three aspects?

Let’s give the answer up front and unpack it from there. Risk. Most of the answer is reducible to risk.When our society becomes less risk averse regarding the use of consumer data, and more cognizant of the value derived from data sharing and decision making, only then will open data seem like a birth right.

I think that there are three key areas, being attacked presently, that move toward the tenets of open data sharing.

Named users on the Internet. At first, this seems like a simple thing. We live in the era of Facebook, Four Square, Glympse, and a slew of mechanisms that either facilitate or uncover people knowing who and where you are. Isn’t anonymity on the Internet a thing of the 90′s? Not entirely. According to Internet World Stats, 78% of the U.S. population is online. Approximately 50% of those users have a Facebook account. But how many Internet users have one account to express and expose all of their online identity? While people may use Facebook, Twitter, OpenID, or other authentication methods to share information, is that authentication persistent across all data sharing platforms? Simply stated, when you use the Internet to buy shoes from Zappos, comment on a CNN.com article, post Instagram photos to friends, and do online payments, are those actions tied to one user ID and profile? For many of us, that answer is no. People use multiple accounts to live their lives online. They may create an account just to post a passionate response to a blog post. Another account is their ‘professional profile’ and yet a third or fourth to conduct personal affairs.

The movement from wanting anonymity online to needing to be who you really are, is a prerequisite for data sharing. Until people begin to live their lives online more in-line with their physical self, the risks associated with authenticating users remains with corporations. Courts will continue to side on the privacy rights of consumers until it can be shown that the user holds responsibility for managing access to data. That’s a liability.

This leads into privacy laws and digital rights management. The reason companies won’t give Singer “her” data is because of two specific areas of risk. The legal system (and court of public opinion) will hold companies liable for what they do with individual consumer data. Privacy laws and advocacy groups favor regulating companies for what data they collect, how they collect it, how it is shared, who has access to it, and much more. In essence, privacy laws incentivize behavior to limit sharing.

However, when society shifts the ownership of data from the entity collecting to the entity observed (from the firm to the individual), then privacy laws will have to reflect this sentiment. Privacy then becomes an issue of what data the individual wants to disclose and through what mechanisms that sharing is allowed. This changes the entire risk posture around digital rights management to data rights management. Now the concept becomes, how do I — the consumer — want to collect and share data about me?

This opens new opportunities to create marketplaces for the collection, analysis, and comparison of data about consumers. Now firms can create open data marketplaces for companies to compete for consumer data. Firms can add value to consumers based on the analytics they provide, comparison data to other firms, price incentives (rate reductions or premiums for consumers who fit various profiles) and the like. Except in these markets, rather than rates being enforced punitively, firms can build services around price models and let market powers and consumer choice respond.

And that’s the third aspect: analytic marketplaces. Yes, most of us are tired of yet another “AAS” (“as-a-service”). Software-as-a-service, platform-as-a-service, and all the other buzz terms in the tech industry trying to sell more products have obfuscated the very real commoditization of IT. Having Analysis-as-a-Service is a useful milestone. The ability to bring data that I have, in a format I can manage, and use/share it in a variety of analytical tools to get more information is a substantive goal. Analytic marketplaces are a sign that companies are willing to push data risk onto consumers and compete on the footing of the services they provide. No longer will they feel compelled to withhold data to gain brand loyalty; rather, they see the value in sharing data and focusing on building better services around realistic consumer data.

As computing becomes more of a utility akin to electricity and water, the question is what remains? What are the faucets and outlets? What are the mechanisms that will use what the commodity is? The infrastructure that provides ubiquitous access to data (networks, servers, mobile devices, sensors) is being laid today. The use of data changes based on the mode of the user. Electricity coming into my home supplies a number of uses. Everything from lights, to heating, computers, battery chargers, devices that are always on, to devices that store a charge are all run by a single flow into the home.

This took decades to create. Standards for the grid, transformers, the ability to generate, distribute, and store power all come into play. Companies that developed their own power generation (anonymous users) had to become customers/contributors (named users) of a common resource. Laws and regulations changed to reflect the importance of a common electrical grid that now needed protections as a national asset. Personal perceptions changed from risk avoidance to risk acceptance as the grid opened new markets for commercial and consumer oriented businesses.

So will be the case for data.

While we like to say we’re in the “Information Age”, it’s more accurate to say the “Information Technology Age.” We’re far more focused on the devices and networks around us than the information and data that flows between them. Despite the lessons learned from the PC battles of the 19080′s and 90′s, and the broad adoption of the Internet as a backbone, developers still code based on platforms (iOS, Android, ‘mobile’, web) rather than building for a standard (W3C, http). [Why do we still build apps for one platform and port code to another?]

Information about our habits, preferences, needs, and social distances are useful if we learn how to make thoughtful decisions. This is the culmination of a much broader, deeper culture change. At best, we are laying the foundation for the early adopters. Yes, some people are very data-driven when it comes to buying cars, dishwashers, homes and other consumer items. But generally we are poor users of data. We don’t think through data quality. We subvert data meaning with subjectivity, and we cling to sunk costs and other thinking traps that skew the data we have. We are slow to think and quick to respond.

Who’s data is it? For now, it still belongs to those who created and invested in it. Those whom the laws and policies are incentivizing. Data belongs to those who have it to analyze. In most cases, that is not us — the consumer. Can and should this change? Yes. I think people should want to own and have their own data. That means taking responsibility for it and the risks that come with that role. This lasting cultural change is still years to come.

Linking Olympic Gold to GDP

Go ahead, start forming your acronyms now.

“Games Domestic Profit”…”Games Determined by Pay”… I don’t have a great one. What for? An acronym to describe the link between a country’s Olympic glory and the relative wealth of that nation (as measured by GDP).

During lunch it dawned on me to check the good ol’ medal trackers that pop up on ESPN and NBC during each Olympics. Right there at the top: China and the U.S. battling for athletic supremacy. And in many cases, it seems like this is one of the moments that we as Americans reassess our place of prominence in the world. Despite all of the conveniences and advances that we take for granted, we need a constant reminder of our place in the world as the most ____ . Take your pick: competitive, capable, resourceful, productive, and so on. But China has always been the specter. A slight nuisance during the Cold War (yes, I went that far back), but increasingly a concern from the end of the Cold War and dissolution of the Soviet Union.

When I was growing up, and it was an Olympic year, it seemed that the adults were always taking cues and measures from how well we did against China. In all things. We didn’t want things labeled “Made in China” but we wanted things cheaper and faster. Somehow supply chains and fair trade agreements with China work better than those of our land-tied neighbors of Canada and Mexico (NAFTA). And yet we’re still haunted by the specter of China’s growing GDP.

So back to sports, if you look at the list of top medals it’s almost one-for-one that the Top 5 countries with medals are also the Top 5 ranking in GDP.

Top5 medals & GDP

Top5 medals & GDP

Again, I’m at my desk during lunch with a fast Internet connection, so why deny myself the pleasure of a little data snacking. I pulled up wikipedia’s List of Countries by GDP and pasted it into Excel. Do the same with the medal tracker and you get an interesting spreadsheet (Click here: Olympic medal).

The countries listed in red hadn’t earned a medal (at the time of this posting), and I haven’t delved into possible reasons that those countries may have in common. The other note of interest is that of the Top 49 countries by GDP, Romania has the largest “differential” as the lowest GDP ($162B USD) and highest medal count (6) — which places them 11th overall in the medal ranking…just out of the Top 10.

So let the sociology begin!

  • What is the actual correlation?
  • What does this say about how industrial countries value sport? Leisure investment?
  • How do national priorities shift in proportion to wealth generation?

For the countries without medals,

  • What does this say about how they invest domestically?
  • What does this say about their domestic stability?
  • Are there other social, economic, or cultural phenomena that they have in common?

Maybe I need a longer lunch break…

Connection Cubes: Sharing

Sharing. It’s the single most important reason why we engage social platforms. It’s the reason we connect to begin with.

Sharing sits squarely in the realm of high dynamism and high intimacy. Where we have high intimacy, we take time to communicate our core values. We exchange everything. Our thoughts, hopes, needs, humor, desires, hatred, frustrations and more are all on display. We do all of this in a way that confronts, challenges, and entices our friends and family.

That’s why we need so many mechanisms and tools. Photos, statuses, “likes,” tweets, email,  blogs, shared links each represent some portion of our core persona.

With all of this comes increased interaction. Dynamism goes off the scale. What’s the reason so many people become addicted to logging into and keeping abreast of Facebook? The fact that they can have controlled, persistent interactions that satisfy the human need to share information with people who will respond in kind.

Sharing is the natural response to connection.

This all said, it is also one of the most difficult connections to create. Offices and companies all over the world talk about how open and sharing their workplaces are. People will have more candid conversations with their grocery store checkout clerk than with their church friends. Why?

Part of the reason is that high intimacy requires both people to share core values openly. How do you know if the person you just ‘friended’ on Facebook is really that person? How do you know if the comments a person makes are their real views or opinions?

This comes from time and shared, common experiences. The more interaction two people have with each other increases both the likelihood and impact of value exchange.

I was watching a debate unfold on Facebook over the past two days. A friend of mine’s iPhone died and he polled his friends to see what he should do: buy an Android-based Motorola Atrix, or go again with another iPhone. Aside from the typical jabs and banter, I found myself thinking about the platforms. Only this time it wasn’t about the technology as it was the costs of switching.

Most of us have the same dilemma. If you use any form of digital music or reader, you’re likely very tied to the device and platform that deliver content. iPad, iPod, iPhone all lock you in to iTunes. Got a Kindle? Try moving your books and magazine subscriptions to Barnes and Noble’s Nook.

So now you’re saying, “so what? This isn’t new or novel.” Where my head was going is the problem we (humans) have with silos and lost potential. The Internet, for all its standardization and commercial appeal, still falls short of its potential to reduce if not remove barriers. The always present argument of “security” or “ownership” is the last remaining hurdle to full and free exchange.

Where the information silos once were mainframe platforms, were replaced by personal computers and desktops. Desktops became laptops, went mobile and are now reduced to smart phones. Throughout all of this, we’ve had applications. Applications for every environment and technology silo imaginable. The problem is: rather than build applications for the web and remove those silos — by figuring out revenue models for secure, profitable communities — we continue to follow the easy path — build applications for hardware platforms and be locked-in to a particular vendor. Instead of being able to get any application’s functionality on any device, people unknowingly are limited to certain applications or companies/developers are tasked to port applications over to a number of selected platforms.

The issues with this are wide and many. The app stores that control the delivery of content tools can select, control and evaluate the who/what/when/why/how of applications deployed via their stores. Apple has already had a slew of stories regarding limiting or removing applications based on apparent political pressures of various groups. Some companies forego development of applications for some platforms in favor of others with little if any input from the user community.

The “Big 3″ (Apple, Google, and RIM) all stand to gain. Now, they’re all very good platforms for what they do. I’m not trying to disparage hardware or software manufacturers and engineers. But the loser in this is the Internet. This isn’t disruptive innovation, it’s sustaining innovation. Innovation that entrenches an incumbent and that existing users will find appealing. This comes at a price of sub-optimizing the Internet. Which ultimately means that we (humans) miss out on what could be.

Who knows…maybe HTML 5 and enhanced richness will collide with multi-core phones and 4G networks to provide a level of hand-held compute power that will stem some of this trend. But chances are, platform providers are going to be loath to relinquish the hold they have over your paid for or self-provided content (or at least the delivery mechanisms).

Connection Cubes: Feedback

In the Feebdback quadrant, we’re dealing with high intimacy and low dynamism. So the frequency, or expected duration of interaction, is low and limited; while the exposure of core competency/value is high. According to the Wikipedia definition — feedback is when “output from (or information about the result of) an event or phenomenon in the past will influence an occurrence or occurrences of the same (i.e. same defined) event / phenomenon (or the continuation / development of the original phenomenon) in the present or future.”

Now, most of us don’t continually evaluate our personal performance regarding a friendship or business interaction. (I shudder to think what some of my ratings may be in those cases.) We do, however, seek confirming advice just prior to or immediately following a purchase of say of a durable good (tv, washer/dryer, blu-ray player). We also seek input from friends regarding status purchases (car, cell phone, consumer electronics – things that culturally show us as belonging), and for one-time, pay-before-consumption items (wedding cakes, party DJs, child safety products – things that are difficult to return or hard to redress upon failure).

For example, my wife solicited quite a good amount of feedback prior to buying a child safety seat for our cars. While the seat looks great, fits comfortably, and more — we’ll really only know its *value* in the unfortunate event of a crash. At that point is when the seat gets a pass/fail grade, and in the event of a fail, it will be far too late to redress.

We all appreciate information from friends and associates and social networks allow us to gather it in a short, trusted manner. It exposes things that we do as a part of our lives, as part of how we fit in, and how we perceive ourselves in relation to others.

Technology companies are continually looking for inventive ways to scour social tools for sentiment analysis and mine that information for new ways to market products to us or predict market trends (what we’ll buy).

The reason I placed a site like LinkedIn here is because the nature of how people use the features. It is specifically designed to facilitate a feedback loop. Not only do people talk about career items, jobs, and findings on LinkedIn, but they are able to recommend people’s past work efforts. This feedback loop reinforces the reputation-based influence that some users have over others. Yes, you can post a comment and get feedback via Twitter, Facebook, Foursquare and many others. Since those are open posts to your entire community of friends, and the interaction may take place over several days, I push that over to a form of “Sharing” (which is the next exploration in this series).

Only in LinkedIn (for this example) are we expressing specific comments about one of our most core values: our careers. You don’t have to visit LinkedIn daily, or even have an app on your smartphone that pings you every hour to stay abreast of what’s going on. It’s not that dynamic. It is very intimate. What we do, how well we do it, and the path of companies/positions that describe our career path is a key piece of our personal make-up.

What are some other sites out there that fit in this quadrant?

Connection Cubes: Sentiment

So let’s move east on the quadrants and talk about “sentiment.”

In this quadrant, the reason people connect is based on some sentimental value. Now, sentiment doesn’t require a person to have a previous connection. It’s not just reminiscing about high school/college or seeking a favorite old toy. In fact, type just the word sentiment into a Google image search and you’ll get more images of perfume and stock performance than you will human faces or expressions.

Merriam-Webster defines sentiment as “an attitude, thought, or judgement prompted by feeling; an idea colored by emotion.” A sentiment-based connection is often short, repeated iterations centered on a specific topic that may have a level of intellectual depth but fails to engage each collaborator at their core. From a technology perspective, sentiment connections often have less regard for the tool or platform used to facilitate the interaction. The emphasis in this quadrant is on the idea of a “topic”: the content being discussed stays at the center.

When engaging in this type of behavior, people don’t care about technology; They want to be right or emotionally validated.

People seek information and data about the topic that reinforce a currently held position in their minds. The position may change over the duration of the connection, or the topic may move into a more specific aspect, but how the information is gathered is not as important as feeding the emotion of the moment. Think about it like the thinking trap of confirmation (confirming evidence). If you’re thinking through this as an information architect, this comprises the exclusive or “known-item” seeking.

There are numerous times when we all fall prey to this line of thinking. Ever had a conversation with someone about the weather and one of you takes out a phone just to say “yeah, but later it’s supposed to rain.” That action was driven by emotion. The source of the weather report didn’t matter. The need to prove a point based on personal attitude drove the interaction.

Here’s another example. Someone sends you an email or posts on Facebook a seemingly scandalous link about  a company or product. They comment around it blithely like “This is why corporate America is evil!!!” For me, the lack of substance combined with hyper-opinionated statement prompts a sentiment of disbelief and a desire to fact-find. So I can quickly and easily turn to other sources through social media like YouTube and Twitter to find related information to the contrary. I know what I’m looking for (the email/post topic) but my search is influenced by an emotional response.

Another key to this exchange is that my friend and I can debate by having frequent exchanges on the topic, but the level of intimacy is confined to a more superficial level because we’re not engaging or sharing core values. Even though the debate can be heated, we’re not engaging each other — nor the social media we’re using — in a manner that builds new layers of openness or connection. We’re merely throwing facts, data and conjecture in an effort to sway the other’s perspective.

Keys to this area are:

  1. The frequency of interaction between the people is high [frequent], and
  2. The degree to which they exchange core values is limited [nonexistent].

Another aspect of the dynamism is the length of time the collaboration is expected to last. In the email/post scenario above, the debate isn’t going to rage on for weeks or days. It may have a carry over or resurface at some point, but unless the two of you are really going at it, the fervor is going to die down shortly. From a social media tool usage perspective, it is important to note that the sentiment cube tends to drive people to access a variety of different tools. Since the item is known (topic) and the collaboration is fixed (people engaged on email/post), it allows you to explore a variety of information sources and media.

When I do a search for the topic I’m not looking for certain links. I’m trolling for a variety of sources that support my emotional position. I’m no longer emotionally tied to the tool, as I may be if I’m sharing a photo of my family and only do that through Flickr or Picasa. When my emotion or sentiment is fixed because of the social tool, I’ve moved into the quadrant above and am doing more sharing than I am sentiment.

So how does this impact business or technology? Well, for starters, if you know how the content in your application, tool, or website will be used, you can better structure both it and how its accessed (mode of use) to suit your consumers. Your information may be better suited as a mobile app or optimized for viewing on a mobile phone versus a full, Flash-enabled website. Understanding how users need information (for consumption or distribution) better positions you to be effective in delivering that content.

Connection Cubes : Curiosity

In my previous post, I introduced my concept of “connection cubes.” I want to break each one out for a bit more investigation and start by exploring the concept in the “Low-Low” quad.



In this quadrant, the reason people connect is based on general curiosity. That curiosity can be based on general interest, “nosiness,” or some kind of exploratory searching. Keys to this area are:

  1. The frequency of interaction between the people is low [infrequent], and
  2. The degree to which they exchange core values is limited [nonexistent].

I guess a little exposition on “core value” is warranted. Ralph Welborn and Vince Kasten describe core value from a business perspective, but it’s a valid starting point. Businesses create core value through the processes and information that allow them to develop a particular product or service as theirs. For example, a car is a car in many respects. Toyota has certain processes and ways of making their cars unique to Toyota. So much so, that they branded and market the process as “The Toyota Way.” The finding Welborn and Kasten write about shows that intimacy of an exchange is based on how much each firm is willing to expose those key processes that drive adoption, culture and ultimately value.

The principles can be applied to other firms. Companies can hire Toyota executives and employees away from the company. In the end, there is still a set of underlying core values that culture has to embody.

If we apply this to everyday personal interaction, how does it work? Core value, on a personal level, can’t be “I like ___” and its not like a personal ad (“SWF, seeking SSM for drinks and friendship”).

Core value, on the Internet, is more about how much of your real person is required to be revealed in order to have an authentic, meaningful interaction.

To get value from a tool like StumbleUpon or even a blog (WordPress, Blogger, TypePad), as a consumer, I don’t have to share a lot of myself. I can read blogs until my eyelids collapse and never let an author know I was there. I can take an insight shared on a website I stumble upon and use it in another form or fashion. That is low intimacy. Low intimacy sites and tools are a byproduct of the growing comfort people have with sharing more information about who they are, where they are, what they’re doing, and why things matter.

Social media launched most of its users into the era of an onymous Internet. People like and want to know who’s posting information. Facebook, Flick, LinkedIn and more shed the practice of acting anonymously in favor of self-promotion. To this end, there is a clear division of web sites. Those who favor identifying users and those which don’t. Now, one is not better than another. They each serve a purpose (there’s no argument for one over another).

The other key to this area — frequency – is a matter of how often people engage in that behavior; or use that mode. Again, for example, I’ll use StumbleUpon when I feel I’ve searched to the end of my known web and back and want to ‘refresh’ things a bit. I don’t use it every day as part of my work or life. Think of the performance review tool/app at your job. That’s likely a very good example of low dynamism — something that is used infrequently which limits its effectiveness for driving growth. You use it as a tool when you have a need and move on.

My question here is, what other social media tools/apps fit into this quadrant?

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