A New Deal on Personal Data

1. Background

Consumers Personal Data lies scattered throughout their services, Apps, memberships, and many places they would never guess. Imagine a service that they configure to bring all this data together in one place, and then make money from it. The service imports their personal data from companies, then structures and protects it, and then offers it to a marketplace. It could also provide insights about themselves, keep their data everywhere up-to-date, and fill in tedious online forms — all under consumers control and demonstrating full transparency every step of the journey.

On the other side there are businesses that require and pay for personal data today. We will initially target the business of advertising, because it can move quickly and already pays large amounts of money for personal data. In sourcing this data directly from consumers, they could get better quality data, ethically and openly sourced, and accessed via their existing systems.

This is not my idea, nor is it new. There are several like-minded services are already out there having been developed independently. I also launched and managed a similar service (o2 Get) in 2017 while working at mobile operator Telefonica Germany. This article shares some thoughts about these services and how they could be executed, and hopefully we will see more of them in the future. Fortunately, we don’t need new technologies and architectures to build them, just different thinking around personal data.

The service can be broken down into the 3 main stages, as shown below.

Establishing such alternative solutions and their associated ecosystem, where personal data is ethically treated, is certainly a challenge. The scale of it can be measured by the many companies doing extremely well from the current misuse of personal data, whether the digital advertising industry, or tech giants like Facebook and Google. I’ll say misuse, others may go further and say abuse, while some will just see it as maximising data value. Fundamentally the issue is that consumers do not understand what they are consenting to, and the use of their data is not transparent, and that’s likely how companies have designed it to be.The result is that consumers have absolutely no idea of how their personal data is collected and shared. But like another ethical challenge of our time, climate change, the tide is turning and there is business to be made in aligning with the good guys. We should consider the fair and transparent processing of personal data in a similar light to eco-friendly alternatives and carbon neutrality.

2. What is Personal Data, and how can you collect it?

The easiest way to consider it, is to examine the contents of your own purse or wallet, plus all the Apps on your phone, plus any other services you belong to that may send you regular Emails, or even letters through the post. The list becomes very long, very quickly. For example, take this imaginary person and examples of data about them, held by companies.

Putting this data together, or simply combining different elements, yields a highly useful profile of the individual. This is valuable for advertisers, and they can make money from it. Because they can make money from this data, the consumer should be able to make money from their data. But how?

With the implementation of GDPR in the European Union in 2018, its citizens acquired the right to access, delete, modify, and receive electronically their personal data, as held by companies whom the consumers have contracts or agreements with. GDPR specifically mandates the consumers right to ‘receive their data in a structured, commonly used and machine-readable format and have the right to transmit those data to another data controller’. This means consumers can extract their data and take it to another party, like the one operating the service we are describing, who then can act as an agent for the consumer to manage and monetise it. GDPR has significantly influenced subsequent data regulation in several other parts of the world and is no longer just an EU phenomenon.

3. Service Overview

The new service requires a critical mass of personal data, the establishment and growth of competing Personal Data Marketplaces, and connections to businesses which consume personal data. The 3 main functional components could therefore be:

An App to request data from all the consumers services, covering every other App on their phone, and every card in theirwallet. Like a data hoover, leveraging the GDPR obligation on companies to provide an electronic copy of consumers data.

A Data Curator Function, to manage and protect this data, implement the consumers chosen data sales strategy, generate further data elements, create insights from the data, manage the account balance, determine where payments should be sent — all under instructions specified by the consumer.

Personal Data Marketplace, where consumers put their data and businesses search for data, make offers for consumers data, ask for new data types, and integrate their campaign and survey systems.

It could look a bit like this

Many consumers will not understand how to take advantage of the powers that GDPR gives them, or indeed why they should do so. The service should be designed around the assumption that the vast majority of people just don’t care enough about their personal data to spend a lot of time managing it. It should be capable of running on a fix-and-forget basis.

Consumers should be able to set how aggressive their data sales strategy should be, whether aiming at maximum income, or being more restrictive in supplying some data elements. There should be a means for them to view their own collected data and edit or delete any elements that they wish. Payment can be made for importing data to make the consumers profile more valuable, or from a business paying to address that type of person for an advertising campaign. The consumer is matched to the business and shown an offer when they meet the profile of the target audience and have indicated a potential interest. The service avoids current wastage whereby a million people can be shown an Ad and only 1% or 10,000 engage, whilst the other 990,000 are simply not interested or irritated.

From a business perspective the interface would be a website, or more likely an API integrated into their existing Campaign Management. It allows the business to define the type of person they are looking for, how much they would pay for their data, and other inputs. They would then search the marketplace and one-by-one build up an audience to buy, either on a one-off or a continuous basis. The business would address the self-selecting users with adverts either within the App to retain the data within the service, or by using their own campaign management system if the user agrees (for a price) to supply an identifier such as an Email address or mobile phone number.

4. Money flows in this new ecosystem

On the business side, some existing ecosystems processing personal data are awash with money. According to eMarketer, the estimated Digital Advertising spending in 2020 was $435.8 billion. That’s $435,800,000,000. Programmatic digital advertising, where personal data is used automatically and via dubious user consent, was predicted by Zenith to be worth $98.2 billion in 2020. There is absolutely no shortage of companies and money to buy personal data, just for Advertising alone.

When introducing a form of new business model, it’s probably better not to try and change both consumer and business behavior at the same time. Therefore, we keep the B2B side the same and tap into the huge amounts of money spent every day on targeted advertising. Advertisers can integrate the marketplace and search for audiences in the same manner as their various campaign management systems do already. A further benefit is that current personal data used by advertising is often of debatable quality, and it should be of higher quality when provided directly by the users themselves.

From my advertising experiences there is no shortage of progressive Brands that would spend money on new data solutions that distance themselves from less ethical companies and data practices. In the same way as they would want to distance themselves from companies that trash the environment and accelerate climate change. There is a new wave of ethical business that personal data services can leverage. Companies doing the right thing.

We do modify the consumer side in creating the concept of personal data as a currency. For consumers 100% of the money made from their data today, is going into the pockets of businesses. We should reduce that percentage. Perhaps not into spectacular amounts equal to €1000’s each year, but through collecting a few Euro’s by regularly participating in advertising campaigns. Some €10’s or €100’s can be made depending on consumers chosen activity level and data sales strategy.

There is another heavy user of personal data, the Market Research industry. The digital element of the global Market Research market was worth over $73 billion in 2019 (Statista). It already has a well-established model of paying targeted users for their time, effort and attention, which fits well to the service model described here. Their survey objectives can be many, but often involve the need to understand better a market and customers, reach the right type of people to convert into new customers, or get feedback on potential products. The use of personal data can be equally important for other industries such as Retail, Smart Cities, Mobility, Transport, Insurance, and Telecoms.

5. Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

Q1. Do these types of services not exist already?

A. Yes, they do. Several alternative personal data systems have been launched in recent years, though none are yet wildly successful given the market and thinking is at an embryonic state, and most people are not yet used to the idea of considering their data as a currency. This will change. Another aspect has been that the services are generally offered by new companies that have not yet had the time to build trust and credibility, to persuade people to hand over their personal data.

Q2. Are you not over-simplifying the complex world of Personal data?

A. I don’t think so, though the Personal Data topic does have surprising depths if you really want to look for them, particularly in areas such as legal, interoperability, governance, neutrality, data sharing between services, and more. But advertising and consumers tend to operate on simpler terms, and consumer services that cannot be made simple can find it difficult to gain many subscribers. Furthermore, by designing our service with full transparency and full user control as underlying principles, some negative issues and debates are avoided.

Q3. Why start with Advertising, rather than e.g. Financial Services, or Telecoms?

Because of the amount of money it already invests annually in personal data, due to its importance to the business. It’s not Advertisings fault that Facebook and Google take most of that money and have sucked some of the diversity and creativity from their industry. I believe an appetite for change and new ideas still exists in advertising. Other sectors are less interested in general personal data, instead focussing on just a few sector-specific elements, and they also tend to move at a slower pace and resist change more.

Q4. Is the Advertising industry not currently changing in this direction anyway?

A. No. It is certainly changing in some areas, because it has to. It is undergoing a re-think to address challenges such as disappearing identifiers (3rd party cookies, IDFA), and the endemic fraud present in the industry. Our service is not about these aspects of advertising, and would strongly diverge from current advertising practises in 3 key areas: (1) establishing a clear user consent to legitimise any identifier or data used in the first place, (2) demonstrating full transparency, and (3) providing the user with a better value exchange by giving them a share of the money spent on advertising campaigns.

Q5. So, where do we fit in Blockchain?

A. Although blockchain is included in some of these existing solutions, and has some useful properties, it is not essential. Blockchain can establish trusted entities that handle personal data according to prescribed rules, their decentralized nature avoids single points of failure (e.g. data leaks), and they can be made very safe and secure. However, GDPR and similar laws insist personal data must be able to be edited and deleted, which is difficult with blockchain and its transaction immutability. Having worked with blockchain-based Smart Contract solutions in the past, the need for absolute trust on personal data may be at odds with an over-indexing of cowboys found in the blockchain and related cryptocurrency space.

Q6. Do you ever feel you’re banging your head against a brick wall on this one?

A. Yes, sometimes. After working for many years to bring these alternative personal data systems forward, few are yet in widescale service and demonstrably successful. But all it would take is a major consumer brand to adopt the thinking, explain to their customers that they would now be paid for their data, and we’re off. Consumers would only receive advertising if they wanted to. If a large company with a significant existing subscriber base (e.g. Apple), adopted such thinking, then it would fly. It could strongly reinforce an already positive reputation for looking after customers personal data, and the rewards from data sales could be applied in a frictionless manner as micro-payments for Apps, Music, Films, etc. As someone once said, ‘No army can withstand the strength of an idea whose time had come’.

Q7. Does it not feel a bit strange both asking and answering your own questions?

A. Yes. But it’s a way of fitting in specific content and may contain obvious questions that people have. I like FAQ’s as a format.

6. Conclusions

This article is the 2nd in a series of 3 about changing the thinking around personal data and creating alternative systems and services.

The first one examined the challenges, titled ‘Mobile Advertising is rubbish — Something Better Change!’ and can be found here. In this second one I’ve set out at high level, some of what is needed around Personal Data Services and Marketplaces, and how they can work to the benefit of both consumers and businesses.

In the third and final part we’ll add some detail and hopefully discuss a practical example of a service.

In 5–10 years, I believe these principles and systems can be a significant basis for the ethical and transparent use of personal data by many industries.

And Advertising can lead the way.

About the Author

I’ve been working in Product Management for a few decades, across Europe and in different industries. Personal data, and particularly the location of people, has been central to my products and services, whether these were mobile phone networks, satellite navigation systems, or mobile advertising. Joining the advertising industry in 2012 was an eye-opener for me, in terms of how extensively personal data was used, and how little consumers knew about it. I’ve therefore been working to empower people to take more control of their personal data since 2016. We launched the Telefonica Germany o2 Get Service and App in 2017 with UK start-up People.io, rewarding users for their data, importing personal data from their other services, and giving them transparency and more control. This didn’t work out for various reasons, but insights were gained for the next time, and the ethical principles it embodied are just as important today. It will come.

John Craig, 3rd March 2021



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John Craig

John Craig

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Veteran Product Management guy based in Munich, starting to use medium to get some random thoughts written down, related mainly to my work.