We manage so much of our lives by tapping, swiping, clicking and typing, from socialising and shopping to work and play. And tomorrow promises so much more. The Internet Of Things will plug us in to a vast and ever-growing network of connected devices from wearable technology to domestic appliances to entire ‘smart cities’. Want to know what the next big thing in tech will be that’s going to change your life?
The fuel driving this revolution in technological innovation is your personal data. Sure, the shiny new hardware — from smartphones to sensors — is all very clever. But that’s just the kit. It is only part of the vast ecosystem of digital products and services we interact with every day. The amount of value any of these things bring to our lives depends on how much they know about us. And the more they know the better they get.
Welcome to the Internet Of Me.
Only there’s something spoiling the view of this utopian landscape, of course. That word ‘personal’. Barely a week goes by without some terrifying headline about the latest hack spilling secrets onto the web or revelations about a major online service doing things with our information we’d rather they didn’t.
If fantastic, life-enhancing innovation relies on ever greater amounts of our personal data, will the Internet Of Me ever reach its potential?
The answer to this conundrum is surprisingly simple. All it requires is a change in how we look at our personal data and who ultimately controls it.
Let’s take health as an example. Here is a sector ripe for innovation but where data is of the most personal and sensitive nature.
If you run to keep fit you might have an app that tracks your performance. Over time it will tell you how you’re progressing relative to all the other runs it has logged. It doesn’t really tell you much about your fitness beyond this, much less your overall health.
But imagine if your running app was one of many that shared data about your lifestyle. Let’s add in your heart rate, sleep pattern, steps walked, food bought, blood pressure, working hours, miles driven.
Add in your medical records and that data gets seriously deep. Taken as a whole it would be a view of your health that not even your GP could imagine.
The first beneficiary of all this would be you. For the first time you would have a complete picture of your health, fitness and lifestyle.
Through sharing that rich data — or parts of it — between those apps and services (and new ones) you could feed back fresh information that then allows them to further enhance the experience for you.
They could then warn you of potential heath problems, give you lifestyle advice and motivation, and personalise offers for products that could include everything from food to gym memberships to tailored health insurance quotes.
If that complete picture of your health were shared, anonymously, with that of others across a wider demographic, trends and patterns would become far more accurate, benefitting the wider community and, though the resulting insight, you yourself. And think of what researchers working on cures for diseases could do with vast amounts of such rich data at their fingertips.
Think of any sector and the benefits become obvious — finance, travel, utilities, motoring, retail. Products and services stand to gain so much more relevance and value the more data you put in. Because what you are really putting in is context — that’s the fuel that drives the Internet of Me.
Context is king.
Of course, it’s those ‘personalised offers’ that might raise a few eyebrows. Businesses that track and target your every online move would also be very eager beneficiaries of that rich personal data.
Right now businesses and consumers are locked in an endless war of attrition, eyeing each other with suspicion across the data battlefield. The former takes aim with cookies, tracking and targeting algorithms. The latter defends with ad blockers and decoy data or disappears off the radar altogether. Apple allowing easy ad blocking in its iOS9 release will see many casualties among the businesses that rely on targeted mobile advertising.
So what hope for peace when both sides assert sovereign rights over personal data? Up until now businesses have had to make do with whatever small nuggets of an individual’s data they can get their hands on. These nuggets are all different and scattered across countless online accounts, activities and other sources.
Further frustrating efforts to gain deeper insight into consumers’ lives is data protection legislation, the understandable response by Governments to public fears over threats to privacy.
So available data continues to be incomplete, inaccurate and out of date. Nevertheless, it gets bundled up and traded to marketers and advertisers who do their best with it to try and work out what to sell to you. The results tend to be crude and annoying, not to mention downright creepy when a business you’ve never dealt with before pops up knowing who you are and where you’ve been.
How many people would be happy to throw something as important as their medical records into the mix as well?
And yet despite all it’s shortcomings, this data is hugely valuable. It is what the personal data economy is built on — the acquisition, sharing and selling of consumer information. It is a resource that will be worth a trillion euros a year in the EU by 2020, according to a report by Boston Consulting Group.
Businesses are only too aware of the massive potential for innovation and growth — and, of course, profit — if they had access to truly rich data. And despite their fears, consumers do want the sort of future it could offer them. The enthusiasm with which they embrace technology is evidence of that. It is their sense of powerlessness and understandable concerns over how data is used that is the brake on progress.
So is a move towards greater sharing of our information the stuff of dreams or nightmares? Is the price of innovation an acceptance that privacy is dead?
The answer is No. And this is where a shift in attitudes — and control — is needed. Specifically, a shift in ownership and control of personal data back to the consumer. This would put everything together in one place in a way that would be unimaginable for a third party. The benefits are obvious and immediate. The consumer gets to see the bigger picture with privacy and security. And, of course, they can now control who is allowed to access and use this complete, rich data, based on what they get in return.
For their part, businesses need to let go of their urge to hold and own the low-grade, thin data they have now. By handing control to consumers they are not losing out or capitulating. Quite the opposite.
What they gain is access to the kind of rich, complete data they have only dreamt of. They can then use it to improve, enhance and personalise their offer to give consumers exactly what they want. And none of the stuff they don’t.
The push from business will be matched by pull from consumer.
The software and apps are already emerging that can aggregate a person’s data in a secure, private environment — whether on their device or in the cloud — and then offer them insight and value from that ‘bigger picture’. Businesses that make use of such platforms will be well placed to lead the charge in offering products and services that are truly personalised and far more relevant for their customers.
A business creating a bespoke offer based on a consumer’s data wouldn’t even need to hold that information itself. Apps on the individual’s device could process it locally, giving the business the data it needs while ensuring ownership and privacy for the user.
When organisations respect this personal data model and use it to offer greater value and better experiences, people will share yet more data, leading to yet further innovation. It is an opportunity to build ever deeper trust based on mutual benefit. It’s hard to think of a situation that better fits the phrase ‘win-win’.
And such benefits extend beyond the commercial to the public sector and wider society. A simple shift in control over personal data would solve the problems of both consumer and business. The result — a true Internet Of Me — is possible.
We just need to give it permission.
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