At the dawn of the World Wide Web, its early adopters – the former hippies who took Randian objectivism as gospel – anticipated liberty, a space free of the stranglehold of government and conglomerates.
It was to be the great leveller of democracy; its life-blood the ability to network human beings, its purpose the free flow of information and ideas. And yet, the so-called cyber utopians, according to web-theorist Evgeny Morozov, “ambitiously set out to build a new and improved United Nations, only to end up with a digital Cirque du Soleil.”
One thing that the architects of our present digital existence failed to anticipate was the deluge of personal data that would come with it. But the term “personal data” is a misnomer; despite creating it by our very presence – despite marketers knowing more about us than we do ourselves – we neither own nor control it.
“The internet is basically driven on personal data,” says StJohn Deakins, founder of CitizenMe, an application that assists consumers in claiming ownership of their personal data to extract real value from it. “Ninety per cent of the revenues coming through the internet are personal data based. But the internet model is very broken. Personal data is really at the core of everything that happens in this new digital era – and yet there’s no place for us all to take control of it.”
CitizenMe’s aim is to offer a centralised place for personal data, in which users can glean insights about themselves, while profiting from information they otherwise give away for free. Deakins argues the benefit is two-way though, and that “by enabling people to better understand themselves, businesses can also better understand their customers.”
Hearts and minds
Central to CitizenMe’s ethos is changing the way people think about the information they divulge. “Without participation, we all stand a very good chance of getting quite disenfranchised,” he says.
But Deakins says you can only change people’s minds through incentivisation. “You can’t preach to people about the way they should be changing, you need to actually provide benefit.”
The financial benefits CitizenMe offers consumers reflects the value their personal data has to marketers. I’ve had the app on my phone for some time now, and at least daily I’m asked to provide data or insights about myself that marketers, researchers, and the like, have requested through the app. Often the insights are only worth 10-30p, but undoubtedly, if highly persistent, you could make £8 a week or so.
Deakins says that “an ecosystem already exists that runs on paying cash for personal data – it might be researchers or advertisers paying cash for personal data, or lead generation: a car dealer will pay £10 for a lead! So we have all these marketplaces where cash is already being exchanged for your personal data. So why don’t we get a cut?”
Data / value exchange
The notion of a “data / value exchange” – that in return for continued use of a digital service, we pay for it by giving up our personal data – is not fit for the digital age, says Deakins.
“The fair exchange of data is completely personal and context driven. So if I have a very good relationship with one brand, I might be willing to share more to get better services. Or maybe it’s the football club I support and I want to give them data because I want to help the club, or a charity for instance. If it’s a brand I don’t like, or it’s a very transactional relationship, then perhaps I don’t give them anything, or want a bit of cash, because it’s a transactional relationship.”
Business as usual
This all seems very well for consumers, you might think, but the advantages for businesses run deep. CitizenMe is working with business to provide insights and market research – all anonymously, and at users’ discretion, of course. “Less complexity and richer data means more time delivering real impact,” says its website.
By only accessing relevant information that is genuinely useful, rather than massive datasets, businesses can refine their marketing to a level that negates a lot of wastage.
“We’re working with a big UK retailer, we’re working with a bank – it’s that level – and the output is actually in terms of what they’re buying already: market research, but then we go into things like lead generation,” he says.
CitizenMe, while available now on the app store for consumers, is launching a full self-service exchange platform at the end of April with a dashboard that will make requesting users’ data easier for businesses. “They just go into a web portal, select an audience, and say ‘I’d like to find out from this audience what they think about this particular product’. We push out the question on the app, and the users, if they want, share some psychometrics – their attitudes – or some answers about lifestyle, or medical research, and get a financial reward."