With Big Bucks Chasing Big Data, Will Consumers Get a Cut?

As consumers, we’re often told a stampede of “big data” will soon make our lives better.

Safer and cheaper healthcare, more effective government, lower prices at the corner store—it’s all possible when big companies start digging into the digital information produced by a constantly connected society.

Today, the central bargain underwriting most of those lofty promises goes like this: to get access to better services, you’ll give up your personal information or browsing habits for free. But if big companies can make billions of dollars selling your eyeballs to advertisers, can an individual consumer ever expect something more than a free website?

You probably won’t get rich, but it’s possible. There are a few innovative companies testing out that model now, both in the U.S. and overseas.

They’re early examples of businesses being built on the idea that personal data could be a kind of private asset that can earn its owner a little money. That’s a big change from the way things have worked so far in the Internet economy, particularly in the First World. But some big minds think the system is ripe for a change.

A group convened by the World Economic Forum, for example, is pushing governments and businesses to give consumers more control and ownership over their own valuable data assets, changing the equation away from what the WEF calls “the industrial-age model of the `consumer’—where relationships are captured, developed and owned.”

“In practical terms, a person’s data would be equivalent to their `money,’” the WEF’s personal data report says. “It would reside in an account where it would be controlled, managed, exchanged and accounted for just like personal banking services operate today.”

That would take some big shifts in public sentiment, and probably some serious government regulation. And at least one of the entrepreneurs working on a pay-for-data startup thinks it’s a long shot in the developed world. But here are some early glimpses around the country of how it might look if big business started forking over dough for your data.

Location Monitoring

David Shim wants to follow you around. But he thinks you should get something out of it.

Shim is the CEO of Placed, a digital advertising-tech startup based in Seattle. Placed collects data with a smartphone app that continuously tracks its users’ whereabouts using the location sensors built into their phones.

Users provide demographic data about themselves when they sign up—age, gender, ethnicity, income level, whether they have kids. The result is a group of people who can serve as a kind of Nielsen ratings service for the real world, showing Placed (and its clients) where and when they shop, eat, and travel.

That kind of insight allows Placed to say, for example, which retailers saw the most visitors head to Amazon after visiting their brick-and-mortar stores—a practice called “showrooming,” which retailers are trying to battle. In a study of fast-food restaurants, Placed found that Asians were nearly three times as likely to eat at In-N-Out burger than the average consumer, while Hispanics weren’t very fond of Arby’s.

In return for sharing their information, users are rewarded with points that can be cashed in for gift cards or donated to charities. “We think you need to make that trade very explicitly, where we say, `Hey, you’re going to give us something, and you’ll get something back,’” Shim says.

Mobile Marketing

Here’s a pretty big idea: Put more money in the pockets of a few billion people, one digital transaction at a time.

That’s what motivates Jana, a Boston-based company that grew out of research at MIT’s famed Media Lab.

Jana says it can compensate nearly 3.5 billion people in the developing world through partnerships with mobile carriers. The startup uses that reach to help consumer companies market themselves—sending coupons, conducting surveys, and so on. In exchange, the consumers get credits for their wireless bill, reducing a significant but vital cost in the connected age.

Jana boasts work with huge brand names like Unilever, Microsoft, Proctor & Gamble, and General Mills. But there’s still plenty of work to do in creating a robust market for this huge amount of market data, CEO Nathan Eagle says. … Next Page »

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The Author

Curt Woodward is a senior editor for Xconomy based in Boston. Email: cwoodward@xconomy.com

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  • Leon Benjamin

    We propose that it is economically viable for the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) to become a self-funding entity by selling patient healthcare data to a wide variety of industry actors. We also propose that an individual’s healthcare data record itself can eventually becoming an earning asset that can be passed on to future generations.

    http://winningbysharing.typepad.com/oaxaca/2009/03/a-model-for-selffunding-health-care.html

  • Jenny

    Big Data storm is definitely impacting consumers. We see it every day in our interactions with society. The access of information now available is overwhelming. It is quite the big data storm. http://www.apcon.com/big-data-storm/