Go Sell Yourself: Adventures on the Open Data Market

Consumers leave a lengthy digital trail behind them as they go about their ever-more-connected lives. The problem is that so much of this rich data is currently held by large corporations like Facebook and Google, and not accessible to those who generate it. However, a growing Open Data movement encourages private and public institutions alike to open up their coffers and share data, both in the aggregate and with consumers individually. If and when this happens, the effects could be transformational. In his forthcoming book, Open Data Now, Joel Gurin argues that “Open Data may have an impact as great as the Web on society, government and the private sector.”

From Shared Data to Shared Value

Although it may be hard to see why businesses would voluntarily share this information, Open Data advocates – such as those on the Data Philanthropy panel at the recent IIeX conference – believe it’s actually a win-win situation. Each company is privy to only a slice of data, but combine all of that data together in an organized fashion and more meaningful trends may emerge. As Eric Meerkamper of the Centre for Social Innovation put it, “Data is valuable when you have it, but there is other data that is more valuable when other people have it.” And by helping consumers compile detailed profiles of their behaviors and preferences, businesses may ultimately obtain richer and more accurate data than they could gather without their customers’ cooperation.

Of course – as Americans recently were reminded – the government holds a fair amount of data about consumers as well. But there have been promising advancements towards openness, such as the U.K.’s midata program, which gives consumers access to data about them currently held by brands, including banks, credit card companies, utilities and mobile operators. The U.S. Department of Health’s Blue Button application allows Medicare patients to easily download a single file containing their previously disparate medical records and health history. And just recently, U.S. Federal Trade Commissioner Julie Brill called on Congress to establish a “Reclaim Your Name” program that would give people access to the information data collectors have gathered, control how it is shared and correct it when necessary.

The potential economic and social value that comes from sharing and merging these public- and private-sector data sources is huge – and starting to be realized. The World Economic Forum, as part of its Rethinking Personal Data initiative, has compiled a number of use cases where the manipulation and analysis of personal data sets – often collected at different times, for unrelated purposes – has led to positive outcomes in the fields of healthcare, finance, and automotive, among others. For example, scientists from the Harvard School of Public Health used mobile phone and public health records to map, and then intervene to slow, the spread of malaria in Kenya.[1]

Individual Empowerment Fueled by New Tools

In addition to the large data sets being collected by businesses and the government, new tools enable the consumer to track and examine their behavior – everything from diet and exercise to sleep patterns to spending – like never before. A new trend known as the Quantified Self (QS) movement has resulted in personal, self-generated “little data” sets. But how can consumers truly harness the power of this information, as well as Open Data sources?

Enter personal data lockers (PDLs), virtual accounts where people can store everything about themselves, from basic personal data to preferences and interests to financial and medical records to photos, emails, tweets and posts. PDLs are all about putting consumers in control of their own data, however it’s generated, helping them spot patterns in their own behavior, compare themselves to others, and, ultimately, make more-informed decisions. Already in use by the government and businesses in the U.S. and Europe, PDLs are part of a growing personal data industry, with new companies springing up all the time.

The Personal Data Economy

As consumers become increasingly aware of the value of their data – and how much they are essentially giving away for free – experts predict that use of these lockers will increase. When that happens, some believe that the PDL will enable personal data to become a sort of currency, a way to barter with business directly in exchange for discounts, services, or even direct payment.

Even if you would never sell your personal data, there are plenty of other practical reasons to have it stored in one centralized location. Imagine the ability to fill out online forms with one click or to visit an online clothing retailer and see only items filtered to your size and style. You could update your address once in your data locker and instantly give all of your service providers the most up-to-date information. The personal data locker could serve as a sort of digital personal assistant, simplifying, focusing and hyper-customizing every aspect of our experience.

There is evidence, however, that many consumers are indeed ready and willing to share their data with brands. A 2011 study by Future Poll showed that 84% of U.K. consumers would be willing to share personal information with companies in exchange for cash or rewards.[2] And then there’s Allow, a service that helps people take control of the monetary value of their personal data by having them self-select into one of four attitudinal groups: from not sharing any data to sharing anything and everything in exchange for payment or discounts.

Open Data and the Future of Research

But, come on, would anyone really pay a consumer for their own data?

Isn’t that what most market research already does now, albeit in  roundabout ways?

Businesses spend billions of dollars annually on focus groups, communities, panels, ethnographies, IDIs, monitoring and tracking, trying to get a clearer picture of their consumers’ needs and preferences in dribs and drabs. Big Data promises to overcome the limitations of direct questioning and self-report, but GPS, tracking cookies, purchase data, social media monitoring and the lot – while valuable methods of passively gathering data – are simply incomplete. Wouldn’t a truly holistic picture of the consumer, direct from the source, be even more valuable?

Already, enterprising consumers are proving the skeptics wrong. This past May, Federico Zannier, a graduate student and former business consultant, decided to sell his personal data on Kickstarter. As Zannier put it, “In 2012, advertising revenue in the United States was around $30 billion. That same year, I made exactly $0 from my own data. But what if I tracked everything myself? Could I at least make a couple bucks back?”

Since February, he has been meticulously recording ALL of his online activity, including HTML pages, screenshots, webcam images, GPS location, and an app log; he even mapped his mouse pointer position. Then he launched a Kickstarter project called “A Bite of Me,” offering his data starting at $2 a day. Not only did he quickly meet his $500 goal, but at the end of a month, he had raised almost $3,000, including three backers who paid $200 for his entire 7GB data trove. Compare that to the prediction of Shane Green, founder of PDL pioneer Personal , who in 2011 said, “Individuals who make full use of their personal data might one day earn $1,000 a year in benefits and savings.”[3] It seems even Open Data advocates may have underestimated the market.

Could Zannier be the first of a new breed of professional data generators? In a recent article, Jeremy Rix envisioned a future when a network of professional consumers, or “Insumers,” have become the source of all market research. They are paid to do nothing but record their entire lives and help businesses solve problems and innovate; it’s actually their job.  Sounds like a far-fetched future at first. But the Quantified Self movement shows that many already painstakingly track themselves now, and Zannier proves that there is financial gain for those who are willing to put in the effort.

While professional consumers may be more fantasy than future reality, the empowered, informed, in-control consumers that the Open Data movement promises to enable will ultimately be more useful to brands than traditional research “subjects.” This kind of equal, voluntary sharing between consumer and brand will create a more collaborative, mutually beneficial relationship than exists in market research as it’s practiced today.


[1] http://www.sciencemag.org/content/338/6104/267

[2] http://www.research-live.com/features/the-personal-information-economy/4006540.article

[3] http://www.economist.com/news/business/21568438-data-lockers-promise-help-people-profit-their-personal-information-know-thyself

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