The Era of Small Data Begins

This post was originally published under the same title on the Personal blog, A Personal Stand.

This is the first post in a series on the rise of “small data” and the new platforms, tools and rules to empower people with their data. It was written for “The Rise of Big Data” panel at the Stanford Graduate School of Business E-Conference on March 6, 2012.

Big data is big business

More data is created every year or so than has been created in all of human history. In this always-on, always-connected world, where even things are being plugged into the Web, the amount of data is growing exponentially.

The collection, storage, analysis, use and monetization of all that data is called “big data.” Corporations and governments are hyper-focused on becoming big data experts to avoid being permanently left behind. The first movers to master the art and science of big data are already changing the way we live, while disrupting industries and amassing fortunes at speeds never before seen.

Given the stakes, massive investments are being made every year to build the technology and expertise required to succeed in big data, optimized, of course, around the needs of companies and governments, not individuals. Industry experts have likened this big data boom to the early days of “big oil,” and refer to data as the “new oil.” Just as oil was essential to building the modern industrial economy, data has become the lifeblood of the new digital economy.

Companies must learn to compete in big data regardless of their industry, or else face obsolescence. This is a tough challenge and touches all aspects of the operations, strategy and culture of companies. At the same time, opportunities abound as entirely new industries are emerging around data as they did around oil — sourcing, extracting, refining, mining, analyzing, distributing, and selling large sets of data.

Big data creates big problems

With its insatiable appetite for digital bits and bytes on each of us, big data is driving a virtual arms race to capture and exploit information about our every move. Big data will log the life of a child born in 2012 in such a way that the person’s activities will be able to be reconstructed not just by the day, but by the hour or minute. In the hands of bad actors, the potential for wrongdoing with these permanent and growing archives of our lives is real and rightfully concerning.

Yet, until recently, people had virtually no idea of big data’s existence as its tools and marketplaces remained largely hidden. The next generation of tracking and data mining technologies are being created based on the assumption that individuals do not care enough to change their online and mobile behavior, which confuses lack of interest with the current lack of alternatives.

But with privacy and security concerns now front-page news, and the financial triumphs of companies built entirely from personal data such as Facebook, Google and LinkedIn, people are waking up and starting to ask tough questions. While companies and government regulators negotiate over how to curb the most egregious risks and abuses, a new and more powerful model is emerging that is designed around the needs and interests of people, providing them a far better, more sustainable alternative to the status quo.

Enter small data

Small data puts the power and tools of big data into the hands of people. It is based on the assumption that people have a significant long-term competitive advantage over companies and governments at aggregating and curating the best and most complete set of structured, machine-readable data about themselves and their lives – the “golden copy”. With proper tools, protections and incentives, small data allows each person to become the ultimate gatekeeper and beneficiary of their own data.

Built on privacy by design and security by design principles, small data can help people become smarter, healthier, and make better, faster decisions. It can help people discover new experiences more easily, reclaim time in their busy lives, and enjoy deeper, more positive relationships with others.

Small data can also greatly improve the capacity and performance of governments and non-governmental institutions, from eliminating time-consuming forms and other inefficient data practices, to improving public health and education by leveraging the power of more accurate and complete data provided with an individual’s permission. Such institutions can also help share important data with individuals, allowing them to have a copy for their own use.

Applied to commerce, small data holds the promise of connecting people with the best and most relevant products and services in a safe and anonymous environment. It can transform advertising into a more respectful, less disruptive industry that rewards people for their time and engagement with their messages and for their purchases. Small data offers customers the opportunity to better balance and assert their interests with companies (some have called this model Vendor Relationship Management (VRM)). Companies who play by these new rules and earn the trust of individuals will be rewarded with access to rich and robust data otherwise unavailable, giving them instant competitive advantages over companies who choose to go it alone.

The first small data platform – a data vault, private network and apps

Personal has spent over two years designing, building and launching the first scalable small data platform. At its core is a secure data vault to aggregate and store structured and unstructured data from just about any source. A private, personal network sits on top to set permissions for data to enter or exit the vault. People are able to connect with other people through the network, and soon with companies, apps, and private or public institutions, and decide which, if any, of their data they are willing to grant them permission to access.

We have put equal weight on privacy and security, and on helping people leverage their own data in exciting, new ways. These concepts are inextricably linked in small data, which requires a high degree of trust to function properly. Similarly, we have rewritten the legal rules of data ownership to protect and empower users, who we call owners. And, because we know relationships can sometimes end, we have built what we believe is the most complete data portability and deletion capabilities in a data platform. Trust doesn’t work unless you are truly free to leave.

In addition to launching our own apps in the coming months, we are inviting developers to apply for early access to build apps on our platform to show off the power and benefits of small data. Individuals have never imagined the magic of running apps on reusable, structured data about the most important things in their lives, while developers have never assumed having access to such high quality data on which to innovate. The possibilities are limitless.

We are excited to help usher in this new era where permission, transparency and privacy become the norm, and where companies and governments have to align around new rules and provide clear and compelling benefits in order to earn access.

At Personal, we see the future through the lens of small data — and we think it will change everything.

A Digital Bill of Rights By the People, For the People

This post was originally published under the same title on the Personal blog, A Personal Stand.

The Obama Administration unveiled today its long-awaited framework for online privacy, Consumer Data Privacy in a Networked World. The result is a bold and thoughtful step in the right direction, and it will make an impact, regardless of whether Congress acts. It’s another sign that power on the Internet is shifting toward individuals and away from companies.

There’s still much more to do:

1.  In talking about reform and creating a new model, we must put individuals firmly at the center of the framework. This means giving them the tools to drive demand for their valuable data resources to transform the current model into a “user-centric” one. With individuals truly in control – and looking out on the world from their perspective – every other principle and right about privacy falls into place.

2.  While the framework will require companies to re-evaluate their data practices and conform to new standards, what about our government’s obligations in handling our data? The Obama Administration has been impressively forward-looking in this arena – particularly with veterans, education and health record data – but it seems that individuals care as much about what the government knows about them as they do about companies.  We need rules for government, too.

3.  Actual citizens need a seat at the table alongside the privacy advocates, law enforcement representatives, companies and academics that will help establish codes of conduct.  If the framework is being constructed for the benefit of individuals, don’t we deserve a say in the matter, too? Perhaps the final say?

To make the last point a reality, we’re taking matters into our own hands.  In a few weeks at SXSW in Austin, Texas, I will join my friend, Anne Bezancon, founder and CEO of Placecast to create – with other SXSW attendees – a Bill of Rights “by the people, for the people” that we would expect both companies and the government to respect. If you will be attending the conference, please join us for our interactive Sunday afternoon session, We the People: Creating a Consumer’s Bill of Rights. Please also check out the session by our CTO, Tarik Kurspahic, on building a “privacy by design” company.

Seeing the Forrester for the Trees

This post was originally published under the same title on the Personal blog, A Personal Stand.

As recently as a year ago, many of my colleagues and friends told me they just didn’t understand what Personal was trying to do. What did it mean to own and control your data? Why was data even important to a person? Why would companies, particularly marketers, ever embrace transparency and empowering individuals with their data when exploiting that data is at the core of their business model?Forrester logo

What a difference a year makes.

Amid the many positive developments and increasing coverage of this issue, such as The Wall Street Journal’s courageous “What They Know” series, comes the excellent new Forrester Research report Personal Identity Management by Fatemeh Khatibloo, which was released this past Friday.

The report is not only a must read for those who want to understand the complex dynamics at play in this space, but it provides an accessible framework that will help companies prepare for the transformational empowerment of individuals that is already underway. Download the report.

You can also read Khatibloo’s blog on the report at Forbes.com.

A World Without Borders – Customer Data in Bankruptcy

Here is the link to my post in the Personal company blog on how customer data should be treated in bankruptcy: http://blog.personal.com/2011/09/a-world-without-borders-–-customer-data-in-bankruptcy

We don’t have this issue at Personal as individuals own their data from the start when using our data vault service (thus there would be no “customer data assets” for us to sell were the company to go out of business), but I expect it to become a bigger and bigger issue in the coming years.

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.

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.