Thursday, April 16, 2009

Elephant in the Room: Your Digital DNA

The Inevitable Future
The convergence of our physical world and the digital world continues to merge everyday due to more and more physical objects becoming increasingly connected to the ominous machine we call the internet. Soon, we'll always be "on," connected to the web and creating data that defines who we are. However, this “ultimate surveillance” raises many concerns and questions about personal privacy, making it all the more important to become aware of where we’re headed and what we should be concerned about.

Privacy On the Endangered Species List
The idea of “privacy” has been ruptured by technology. The value of putting your information on the web greatly overshadows any recognition that the more information you reveal, the more useful that is to corporate interests. So talking about personal ownership of data online in terms of control is currently a fairy tale. Once your data is out, it's out.

My personal information, or some of it at least, is already up for sale somewhere in the world and I’m being sold to the highest bidder by every company and platform that has any of my information. I’m a part of the multi-billion dollar business of buying and selling the personal data of the more than 400 million North American internet users for "targeted marketing campaigns". My data is a positive externality to the vendors and platforms that capture it. A positive externality is something that is not part of the value traded in market exchanges. It is something one of the parties in the trade benefits from, without having to pay for it. For example, when I am buying something from Amazon, my data is external to the transaction, they are not paying for it and I am not being paid for it. Nevertheless, the vendors benefit by using the data in ways that help their business, from mining to selling it on. I have very little legal protection against this, even with the Data Protection Act and other restrictions on those who capture my data.

Additionally, the problem continues to worsen with the growth of the “free” web because most platforms with web services have turned an external benefit (my data) to the foundations of their business models. The free services I receive are “paid for” by my attention and my data.

As a result, global awareness of privacy has fallen by the way side. A free email service found that 40% of its 11 million users didn't know that it was common practice for email providers to habitually scan personal emails for keywords, useful in advertising. Some users only realize that their personal emails are being used in this way after noticing strangely optimized ads around their inbox.

Wasting Their Time and Money
It is thought that the more data companies can gather about their customers the deeper the insights they can generate. With the intention of leading to longer, more profitable relationships. Instead, many companies are finding that transactions with their customers are too limited for them to get an accurate picture of customer motivations and any data they gather, quickly goes out of date. Additionally, the attempts to fill these inaccuracies by gathering more data simply intensifies the possibilities for intrusion.

So how does a company manage to treat their customers with some sense of dignity without actually zooming in on them from the wide angle (segments) to telephoto (individuals)? Any effort to evolve CRM (Customer Relationship Management) tools with in-depth analytical capabilities that peer into the overwhelming cloud of consumer data have failed, unable to build any meaningful insight into who their customers really are while staying within legal limits of customer data protection.

A New Era
The simple acknowledgment that customers equal individuals interacting with a business and that they want to interact on a peer-to-peer basis, is a good start. Instead of companies “relating” to me through branding and messaging, they could communicate and transact with me based on my real preferences, not market research, demographics and averages gathered from misinformed, out of date data.

The idea of peer to peer (customer to vendor) markets is built around more than transactions. It is lead generated, with the customers intentions driving the conversation. It’s about markets, not marketing, where customers don't have to go from vendor silo to vendor silo, collecting deal information and misconstrued hype. It gives the customer more control, allowing them to notify the market of their intent to buy, and have sellers compete for their purchase.

Imagine companies being able to relate to customers, consistently and persistently. I’d like to imagine being able to take charge of my information and data, notes and records about past transactions, my purchase history, future plans and ideas, preferences and knowledge about all areas of my online life. All this while protecting my privacy to the degree I find comfortable. I want to share my data as I wish, no longer controlled by a platform providing some functionality in exchange for my data (Facebook, Amazon, etc).

In essence, my transactions and purchase history are locked into vendor silos, spaces designed to contain bits of my data (i.e., photos, content, relationships, transactions, purchase history, movements and knowledge.) I lack the means to perform the three simple functions, capture, manipulate and share my data on the web before and above anyone else. Being able to do this persistently amounts to establishing and driving my own online identity.

Enter D.N.A.
The importance of my data should warrant the establishment of institutions that hold my information like a bank. Safety deposit boxes for my information that data banks hold but can’t touch unless I allow them access or pay a fee in exchange for their services.

Hypothetically, lets say I belong to a data bank that I’ll call D.N.A., (Data Now Available) for all intents and purposes. The name D.N.A. also implying that it contains all the information that makes me-me in the online world.

I believe it should start with equipping me with tools based on existing technology and applying an understanding of how I use such tools online. The tools need to help me to reclaim my data, piece together my fractured identity and allow me to drive it forward with all of the benefits that it can bring to both myself and those I interact and transact with. From the vendor point of view, this offers the opportunity to eliminate huge amounts of guesswork about who to market to, about what, via what channels, and when, thereby cutting costs and generating greater returns.

A Day In the Life: Utilizing D.N.A.

Social Web:
There would be an incentive for companies to create plugins for D.N.A. as a way of extending their expertise and be involved in the relationship. “A plug-in consists of a computer program that interacts with a host application (i.e., web browser or an email client) to provide a certain, usually very specific, function on demand. For example, Virgin Atlantic would design a plug-in to receive my travel data from my D.N.A. The plug-in would be designed in such a way that Virgin Atlantic would only be able to retain data if I allow them to and perhaps offering me a better deal if I’m willing to do so.

Another plugin example would be the use of Flickr within my D.N.A. Once I have the option of putting my Flickr data within my D.N.A. I can create new data, import existing data. I can then manipulate it; mash it up, trend it, analyze it, collage it. The plugins will allow me to apply functionality to the data in D.N.A. without having to insecurely post anything within the Flickr platform.

I put together a list of recipes from various sites, like Epicurious, AllRecipes, RecipeZaar. I cut and paste the ingredients lists into an email I send to myself so I'll have it on my Blackberry. Now, there are four supermarkets on my way home from work. My goal is to spend as little time, gas and cash as possible shopping. Ideally, I get everything I need at one store.

I cut and paste the ingredients from the recipes into a D.N.A. shopping list plug-in. I then expose this data to the four stores along my driving route and I get back a grid showing which stores have which items at which prices, plus a total price for each. This potentially saves me a trip to a second or third supermarket and provides the best deal. Additionally, there’s more the plug-in could do, for example, if it knew my loyalty card numbers, it could show me personalized discounts for various items on the list or even specify things I had liked in the past but had forgotten when making the list.

Acme Inc. (Lowest Price)
You might be wondering how business will compete in a bidding system against a company that persistently offers the lowest price. Allow me to use Acme Inc. as an example.

Acme succeeds on selling a range of products at a lower cost than its competitors. Great, but remember the principle, "You can have it Cheap, at Good Quality and Quickly, choose any two". Say I want to buy a new cage for my parrot. My criteria is that he likes it. So I want a solid returns policy from the supplier and I don’t care how much it costs but I do want it tomorrow! So I would want to establish some kind of personal policy. Therefore, while Acme is the cheapest it doesn't win my business because it can’t meet the requirements in my policy because it can’t get it to me right away or it can’t provide a guaranteed returns policy.

Importance of Knowledge and Dialogue
Change is inevitable, there’s increased economic benefit to companies that give back control to their customers versus those companies that continue to either restrict or abuse their customers data. However, the rate in which change arrives depends on customers refusal to play along anymore and demand change. Times have changed. Privacy and our notions of it must adapt too. And that starts by developing the language to discuss these matters in a way that’s obvious and noteworthy to those who are concerned about these issues. Simply demanding the protection of one’s privacy is now a hollow and unrealistic demand; now we should be talking about access, about permissions, and about review. It’s not until we deepen our understanding of the components of identity, of personal data and of personal profiles that we can begin to make headway on exploring the economic aspects of customer data, who should control it, have access to it, create, read, update, and delete it.

So give me tools, flexible and modular, to reclaim my digital DNA, help me piece together my fractured identity. And then allow me to drive it forward with all of the benefits that it can bring me and to those I interact and transact with. We all need a well developed view of the future and to each invest in the aspects that work to make that future come true.

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