Personal and the World Economic Forum’s New Report

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

When I learned of the World Economic Forum’s first report on personal data in early 2011, I was surprised to see an organization comprised of Fortune 1000 companies highlight the many cutting-edge problems we were addressing at Personal. Their report went so far as to call personal data a “new economic asset class,” and made a bold assertion that individuals needed to be empowered with their data to create balance, fairness and stability in the new digital economy.

We were delighted to then be asked to participate in the Forum’s Rethinking Personal Data Working Group, which today released a new report, produced in collaboration with The Boston Consulting Group, entitled: “Rethinking Personal Data: Strengthening Trust.” You can see the Forum’s press release here, and our own here.

The report broadly defines personal data, including data that is directly or indirectly known about you and your family, friends, work, values and beliefs, location/GPS, car, home, finances, spending, browsing history, app usage, health, education – you name it. It further examines the growing instability that comes from a lack of trust and transparency in how personal data is captured and used by companies and governments, while highlighting benefits for all stakeholders, including people, if a better framework emerges that balances the competing needs and interests of all parties.

While startups are famous for “making sausage” – the idea that the reality is messy behind the scenes even when the outcome is good – I think it is fair to say we made some (very good) sausage over the last year. There were a wide range of passionate and thoughtful views on most every subject that touches personal data – ownership rights, consent, the primacy of the individual, the right to be forgotten, transparency, privacy, data security, national security, sovereignty, public safety, regulation, public health, political freedom, and, last but far from least, innovation and economic growth.

Many of the report’s recommendations focus on much needed improvements to the current model, where companies and governments are central. Others point to ways to explore new models that could give individuals a better seat at the table and that can create, through enhanced trust, even better outcomes for companies and governments willing to abide by new rules.

We were delighted to both participate in this important endeavor and to see Personal, along with companies like Dropbox,, Mydex and Qiy, be highlighted as an innovator working to empower people with their data. We are confident that the benefits will be magical for all involved as people are able to effectively manage and use this “new economic asset” across their lives.

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.

What is your personal data really worth?

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

New York Times reporter Joshua Brustein provides a great introduction to the model that Personal and companies like us are developing in “Start-ups Aim to Help Users Put a Price on Their Data.” However, a central question remains unresolved: what is the true economic value of personal data?

No one knows the answer – yet – because no fair market exists for individual data.  The question raises the possibility that, if it’s not very much, people are unlikely to care enough to change their behavior. We believe there are a host of non-economic reasons that people will want to proactively manage their data (time savings, greater privacy, less friction, making better, faster decisions, etc.), but the question of determining economic value is critical.

New York Times photo of Personal team

The current model is built for companies, not people

Some look for clues to the average annual revenue per user for Google and Facebook. These “free” services, whose advertising revenue is based largely on personal data, earn $24 and $4 respectively per person every year. But is $28 enough to motivate people to change their behavior and do a lot of work? Maybe not.  But it is the wrong question. Properly used, we believe companies like Personal will be able to prove your data, when tied to a single purchase, can create 10-20x the value that Google or Facebook can over a year.

The current paradigm is entirely dysfunctional and inefficient from the perspective of the individual. For example, the Direct Marketing Association says over 97% of online advertising fails to reach the right person at the right time. The pennies from the 3% success rate may add up for companies exploiting data across millions of people, but it requires a number of unsustainable practices, such as the increasingly invasive and sometimes unethical tracking of people. It also requires that they co-opt your attention and time and resell that along with your data to others trying to reach you.

The emerging user-centric marketplace

What might a user-centric marketplace look like and how much economic value can a person realize in a year?

First, you need a marketplace that respects the sanctity of one’s data, time (time is money, after all), privacy and identity (anonymity is the default). The technologies, business rules, and legal and privacy protections must be created nearly from scratch to protect the individual. (Our CTO, Tarik Kurspahic, will present at SXSW on building a privacy-by-design platform).

Second, the marketplace would focus on commercially relevant data such as your brand, travel or clothing preferences, along with data about your intent to buy something (also known as purchase intent).  These two types of data alone can fundamentally change data economics when combined with a controlled marketplace to reach you when and how you want to be reached.

This last point is key. We do not support the idea of people “selling” personal data. Rather, we believe such data can be used in a safe environment to connect people with companies with highly relevant products, services and even content and information. Doc Searls and others have referred to this idea as Vendor Relationship Management (VRM). Companies that play by these new rules will have the most direct and positive channel ever created to reach people, including their existing customers.

People can realize thousands of dollars per year

Finally, we believe companies that earn your business (and those who don’t) will be willing to compensate individuals for having the chance to interact with qualified buyers of their particular good or service.  This far more efficient marketplace can easily add up to thousands of dollars annually as people realize the full benefit of their data, time and purchases. That should move the needle for just about anyone.

We appreciate the serious attention being focused on this emerging space by the New York Times, as well as The Wall Street Journal, The Economist, AdAge, AdWeek, Forrester Research, MIT Tech Review, The Washington Post, TechCrunch, Mashable, the Harvard Business Review and others. It is an idea that will ignite untold innovation and benefits for each of us.

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

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.

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.

Getting Personal…With Your Data

Welcome to Getting Personal, my first public blog. I will share my views in their raw form around what I believe is a historical opportunity to empower individuals with one of the most precious new resources — their data. I’d like to invite you to add your voice in rich commentary, so please sign up to receive notifications whenever I post.

I’m passionate about building new technologies, business models and even social paradigms that are designed from the ground up to put the individual’s interests first when it comes to their data and their time (that other precious resource we don’t protect enough). If data, as companies exploiting it today are fond of saying, is the indeed the new oil, well it seems to me we are each sitting on top of our own massive, untapped reservoirs.

To help make some of these ideas a reality, I left Nokia subsidiary NAVTEQ with an entire team that has worked together for a decade in data, technology and media to start Personal, based in Washington, DC. We have been working for a year on what the Washington Business Journal recently called a “mystery personal service.”

We have not been trying to be mysterious on purpose — we just needed some time on our own to work through the multitude of technical and business model challenges required to bring our vision to life. We are, first and foremost, building a platform and a company for ourselves, our friends and our families to trust and use for the long term to own, organize and manage the rapidly expanding mass of data about each us – the Digital You and Me.

I am certainly not the first to think about many of these ideas. In the late 1990s, John Hagel III and Marc Singer defined the concept of an “information intermediary,” or “infomediary,” and predicted the revolutionary potential of such a company if enough individuals trusted it with their personal information.

A number of good faith (and not so good faith efforts) have been made since that time to build infomediaries, but none have succeeded. I’ve had the chance to learn from some of these early pioneers. Their failures, along with the growing success of companies whose only business model is collecting and selling data on each of us, have greatly informed my thinking about Personal and how to build a company worthy of such trust.

If we get this right, Personal and its community of Owners (we try not to use the enterprise-centric words “users” or “consumers”) can help ensure that the there will not be a John Rockefeller and Standard Oil that come to dominate this exciting new world of data. We can all be tycoons of our own data and time and enjoy the incredible, life changing benefits that we believe will result. (But more on that in subsequent posts.)

I look forward to hearing your candid thoughts and reactions, including your concerns and worries about the business. As convinced as I am in the ultimate rights and power of personal data belonging to individuals, I think we are entering a period every bit as messy, complex and challenging as the early days of our American experiment with democracy. No one has ever governed a society where the Digital You and Me exists alongside the real you and me. And certainly no one has ever dealt in a world where their digital self becomes the lifeblood and currency of how we live and interact with everything around us. Exciting? Yes! But also scary and entirely unknown.

For those who are interested, sign-upto receive and invitation going out later this fall to join our beta community.