Data Gems and the Value of Data

Data gemsIt’s been a while since I’ve had time to write – at least thoughtfully. We have been heads down since the beginning of the year finishing our user-centric data platform, data vault and permission-based data sharing service, and are excited to start moving into our next closed beta release shortly.

One of the biggest challenges with a product and model as different as ours – where individuals aggregate, own and use their personal data for their benefit – is demonstrating the real world value of such data and making it easy to manage in large amounts across one’s life. We developed the concept of a “data gem” to help make abstract, “lifeless” data more tangible and real, and to highlight its literal and figurative value (and where else would you store your gems but a vault!).

A data gem is discrete set of reusable, modular data that addresses some kind of activity, thing, issue or need. The three examples in the image are a Wi-Fi gem, which contains information about my router and how to access my Wi-Fi network, an Air Travel Preferences gem, which contains information about how I like to fly, and a Car Insurance gem, which effectively replaces the print or PDF car insurance policies locked away in my filing cabinet or my hard drive with actionable, structured data. Some gems are for organizing information in your life, while others are designed for sharing, and yet others for commercial activities.

The bright orange circle is Personal’s particular take on how a data gem might look, but the concept goes beyond our implementation. As we developed them, you can enter or import data once and have it populate the same fields across multiple gems. They are also designed to be modular so they can be easily combined when shared with others. For example, a babysitter could easily be granted access to related gems on the kids, the home, the television, and emergency contacts. The granularity of gems also allows a high degree of control over how much information is shared with others without creating burdensome user controls.

We have created about 100 gems so far, and are starting to engage others to define new gems and standards for making them as interoperable as possible. I would enjoy hearing your thoughts. S.

Personal Series A Financing

Personal (www.personal.com) just posted an announcement on our Series A financing round, which was led by Grotech Ventures and Steve Cases’s Revolution LLC, and joined by Allen & Company, Eric Semler of TCS Capital Management, and other angel investors we have known from our days at The Map Network. You can read the announcement at: http://www.personal.com/news

Raising money is never easy, especially for a big, disruptive idea. Making sure those investors truly believe in your idea — and have the passion and commitment to help you see it through — adds even more of a challenge. I think we found exactly the right financial partners, partners who welcome, rather than fear, the challenge of turning the current model upside down and doing right by consumers. I hope people will look back in a few years and have a hard time believing the idea of companies owning and controlling our data was ever seriously considered a viable model.

We had some truly amazing meetings during our fund raising process, including many who flat out opposed our vision or else thought the horses were already out of the barn on privacy and consumers controlling their data (some even had a hand in opening the barn doors). We also heard from a number of investors and senior executives who found the task of changing the current system daunting, but who readily acknowledged that our vision was generally how the world should work. We look forward to helping them be part of the solution.

S.

The Data Wars Begin

In a week where President Obama and the White House announced their intention to enter the fray over consumer data and privacy, the most interesting recent news has actually been the rapid escalation between Google and Facebook over data ownership. Framing it in terms of a trade war, TechCrunch declared the beginning of true data protectionism, and has been highlighting the almost daily back and forth between the two biggest aggregators of consumer/Owner data in the world.

This fight over the right to export email and contact data from one service to the other is shining a bright light on the much larger and more important issue — how critically dependent they both are on owning and controlling your and my data. No matter their rhetoric, their actions cannot hide the fact that the they look at our data as theirs. Pretty hard to start a trade war if you don’t have some kind of good or service to withhold. In both cases, the only thing they have to hold hostage is our data. That’s it.

Most trade wars are bad for everyone involved. This one, however, might end up helping Owners. Unlike privacy, which has proven harder to understand and to motivate people, data ownership is far more tangible. Either you can do what you want with your data or you can’t. There is not much room for either of them to sit on the fence. If Google and Facebook continue to retaliate, which I’m betting they do, they will do more to show their true colors around data ownership than anything the White House or Wall Street Journal could do combined. Should be fun to watch.

S.

Owners, not Consumers or Users

Consumer — an individual who consumes something made by someone else, usually with some kind of direct and clear payment. The most common name used by companies to refer to individuals.

User — an individual who uses something made by someone else, usually with some kind of payment, although not frequently direct or clear. The most common name used by web and mobile companies to refer to individuals.

I’d like to propose a new word for the new media lexicon: Owners. Companies are very clear on who their “owners” are, and they go to work to pursue their interests every day. When it comes to our data and time, we should start thinking of ourselves as a little enterprise organized for the express benefit of ourselves. We have tools never before imaginable to build a far more favorable model for ourselves.

But what do we, as enterprises, do?

What product do we make? What service do we provide?

What marketplace are we in? What forms of payment do we accept?

How do we calculate our bottom line?

In the multi-hundred billion dollar industries funded by advertising, the first answer is quite simple: we make data. Data has become a new form of currency in the connected world (joining money and time), and we, as individuals, have an unfair advantage in creating, aggregating and owning the best data about ourselves as Owners.

We also provide the critical service of our time and attention and deciding to whom to give this finite resource. Our marketplace is one where we allow others we trust, companies or individuals, to find us or know us better through our data and to eliminate huge inefficiencies and costs in our lives — and theirs. This marketplace applies to any industry that uses data today — advertising, media, entertainment, retail, health, travel, etc. As payment, we accept cash, discounts, special personalized offers, time savings, mind blowing relevance and discovery, improved safety and security, and guarantees of privacy.

Our bottom line is the most interesting of all to consider. Given the many forms of payment, each of us can choose which of these benefits to emphasize. And unlike most businesses, we can decide on a case by case basis which is most important. Sometimes I might like to maximize my economic benefits (like most traditional companies), but at others, mind blowing relevance and discovery may be most important (such as my upcoming vacation with my family). In a rush, convenience and time savings are probably most important. None of the forms of payment are mutually exclusive, but trade offs will need to be made for the good of our enterprise — just as any great manager has to do.

I hope you will consider using Owner when referring to yourself in the context of using services that require your data or time. Names matter.

S.

Early Concerns about Being Defined by Others (1992)

I would probably be too embarrassed to mention my graduation speech at the University of Michigan in May 1992 had it been a glorious success. As it were, gathering storm clouds over Michigan Stadium forced school officials to rearrange the program, pushing commencement speaker Carole Simpson of ABC News and other dignitaries in front of my speech. In addition to being the opening band trying to follow the main act, I was further thrown off when the wind blew off my my graduation cap as I was about to stand up, putting an exclamation point on the fact that we were all soon to get soaked. I rushed through the speech amid cat calls and growing restlessness. I remember my international affairs professor, Raymond Tanter, telling me later that I had a hard lesson in the fact that timing is everything. Yes indeed.

I only recently realized how much the speech suggested themes of Personal after digging it out of a box in my basement. I was outraged at the time that the label “Generation X” had been so successfully tagged to us by the media and others. At best, we were “materialistic and apathetic”, as I wrote; at worst, we had no name whatsoever. The speech was titled “On Defining a Generation”, and was a call to arms to my peers to take control of their identities and not let others define them individually or as a group. Here are a few excerpts that are eerily relevant to how I believe we are being represented by others who capture our data and define us by it, as well as the value of your intent data (your future behavior) vs. your historical data:

“…Until now, we have been shaped and defined by our parents, our schools, and the media. Today, it is our time to bring together where we have been with where we want to go, and in so doing, to define ourselves.

“…It is a dangerous thing to let others tell you who you are. No one can understand the complexities that make up the mind and soul of another individual. Such attempts to define a person usually fall short; they limit rather than capture essence…Do such attempts to simplify our diverse character affect us?

“…These diverse experiences are all part of our generation, and they show the impossibility of arriving at singular conclusions about our character. We should not attempt to stereotype ourselves, rather, we must reflect on these shared experiences and begin to understand and thoughtfully define our generation.

“…[I]dentity is not simply a composite of the past. We can be identified as much by where we are going as where we have been. This may be the more important task in this process, because it is the part over which you and I have control. What problems are we committed to solving? Are there goals and ideals that the majority of us share that give us distinction from other generations? Or maybe the discipline, will power, and most importantly, the tolerance, to accomplish our goals is what will set us apart.

“I encourage you to be active and thoughtful in defining our generation. Because if we do not define ourselves, experience has shown us that someone else will.”

I was obviously referring to the traditional “media” at the time, and not Google, Facebook or any of the data and technology-driven media companies of today who are defining us digitally by capturing all that we do on their sites and others. Little did I know that one of the co-founders of Google, Larry Page, was just behind me at Michigan and was soon to envision one of the greatest data collection and organization tools in human history, or that the quality of our lives would be increasingly shaped by our identities and reputations in the online world.

In his far happier commencement speech at Michigan in 2009 (as the main act, not the student warm up band), Page shared one of his favorite quotes, which I had not heard but really like: “Always work hard on something uncomfortably exciting.” Amen.

I think this would qualify by his definition: Help people understand how incredibly limiting and inefficient it is to be defined by companies using data they surreptitiously capture about us, and instead provide individuals with the understanding, tools, transparency and incentives to take control and do it themselves.

A New Model Requires New Principles

The first week my team and I started Personal, it was clear to us that we had to have a statement of principles that we would live by internally and be held accountable to by the rest of the world. I don’t mean the mandatory “company values” statement. I mean a fundamentally new set of principles that would govern our every decision; principles based on the conviction that each individual must have the ultimate control, flexibility and benefit of his or her data.

After a thorough review of many good (and not so good) ideas, we agreed on the following:

– Right to data ownership, privacy and economic benefits by individuals
– Transparency in all collection and use of personal data
– Data portability and deletion rights
– Right to simple opt-in and opt-out mechanism
s

In the coming weeks, I will explore each of these more deeply and offer early insights into how Personal has built such principles into our products, business model and company culture.

But I want to first share the fact that data portability and deletion rights was especially perplexing when we first debated it. How could we spend all this time investing our time and resources to build such a great platform and innovative business model and just allow people to decide to take their data elsewhere and delete all traces of it on our system?

The answer was simple – we couldn’t find a single compelling argument not to do it. We are building Personal for ourselves and our families and friends as much as anyone, and we all agreed that we would want to be able to pick up and leave if we lost faith in the company for any reason without penalty or friction. Yes, that means, in some ways, we will only be as good as our last pitch, but that is how we believe it should be when it comes to data. Anyone for having your money trapped in a bank you have lost confidence in? Or if you find another bank with far better rates and services? We welcome having to meet such a high standard.

S.