Tagged: stories

A single version of you

In my last post I suggested that there are around 200 organisations that have their own version of you in their systems. Your shopping history with them (and only them), your credit card information, your address (possibly an old one), your email (possibly out of date, or incorrectly spelled through manual error), your age (guessed), financial status (assumed), marital status (incorrect), mobile number (work not personal) and so on. Some right, some wrong, some just out of date.

What would it be like if you could manage a single version of you? You’d want to make sure that not all of the data was held in one place – a potential honey-pot for hackers – but instead you could pull it together from other sources on demand so that you could make sense of it. Indeed, those 200 organisations could ask you for permission to subscribe to it, on your terms. And you’d be able to manage the context of how it’s shared – who gets to see what. On one hand you’d be able to give a bank access to your credit history so that they can authorise a loan, but then you could rescind that access after seven days. You’d be able to prove who you are to a hotel without them having to take a photocopy of your passport.

You’d be able to share your contact details with your employer, your childrens’ school and your family, but then be able to keep that information hidden from a high street retailer who asks for your mailing list details. You’d then be able to share your delivery contact information with that same high street retailer’s delivery company because that has context (but it would only be until the TV was delivered; afterwards they have no need for the data and you’d be able to remove that organisation’s subscription to those details). And perhaps interestingly, you could share with those organisations the information about what you actually want and need to buy. In real time, they could see your intentions. Some trusted organisations would even be allowed to recommend things that you don’t yet know you want, so there would still be some sense of serendipity in the system.

Something for everyone

Just think about the benefits here for businesses. No more buying data about customers on the open market to make their sure Customer Relationship Management systems are up-to-date. No more guesswork about what individuals might buy and when, spending good money after bad on advertising which has a hit-rate of 0.5%. Instead there will be deeper, richer, more valuable relationships with customers. And more accurate stories about the individual, written by them, on their terms.

And if that wasn’t enough, the single truth about an individual could be combined with others to create a single truth about a whole group – no more need for guesswork about demographic approximations and customer segmentations. Instead you’ll have customers – who trust the organisations – forming groups to tell lots about themselves; data which could be pulled together to make sense of a particular need or group behaviour. Very useful indeed; it would turn customer insight on its head.

If it was possible to manage such a personal data single truth to which others could subscribe, then it would be a place for more than this idea of ‘Volunteered Personal Information’ (i.e. all those forms you fill in); it could also be a place to capture and manage lots of other types of personal data, for example your receipts (think email receipts), travel information (think London’s oyster scheme data) and bank statements (a la lovemoney). I called this your ‘created data’ – the stuff you generate daily by shopping, browsing, travelling and sharing.

If we could pull all this information into one place it would create a much richer picture of who you are – a much richer view than those 200 organisations have about you today. It could capture the books you bought on Amazon as well as the ones at Waterstones or Barnes and Noble. It could capture what you spent on food at restaurants as well as in the supermarket. Wouldn’t that be handy? A holistic view of you – wouldn’t that be useful for companies who want to ‘personalise’ their service? Once again, if it was pulled together in a meaningful way – with a story written by you – wouldn’t it have more value than the dry data organisations buy today from the data markets?

A new way to tell stories

Imagine that this idea of a single place for your personal data could pull together all that information – not to store, but for reference – and then help you make sense of it, help you tell your story. (it’s important to note that this single place isn’t a centralised ‘vault’ or ‘cloud backup’ for all the original data, but instead is a place where all these different feeds can come together to help you make sense of them all – a bit like Flipboard for your personal data, with some parts that are authored by you.)

And imagine being able to share some of that information with others like you who have similar intentions and needs, and to express them in groups so that organisations can see aggregated demand, and perhaps even build new products and services to meet those group demands, knowing that there’s enough volume to warrant the investment.

Wouldn’t that be brilliant.

And it’s possible today.

By the end of the year, it’s expected that there will be at least half a dozen personal data services available to the public that will do just this – some of them are listed here. There’s been more than $100m invested by venture capitalists around the world in these ideas. Together with the myriad of personalised services appearing all around us, together with digital banking and ewallets and e-health systems and smart meters and social platforms, they are all straws in the wind. Together these things are going to fundamentally change the way we tell our stories. And who writes, edits and publishes them.

Why stories matter

This is the second of three posts about your personal data, about why they tell a story, and why that matters.

When you sew together the many separate pieces of my personal data one can start to tell a story…

  • A story about my shopping habits (think Tesco clubcard)
  • A story about my finances (think Mint)
  • A story about my likes and dislikes (think Pandora)
  • A story about my relationships (think Facebook)
  • A story about my skills and career (think LinkedIn)

And indeed when you put my data together with a larger group, you get even more powerful, collective stories…

But the cautionary tale here – and which I’ve told above, and many times before – is of organisations trying to tell the story about you, but not with you. If it’s not you doing the writing (or it’s done without your permission) then the story won’t be a real one; it’ll always be at least in part a fictional one. In the same way a Hollywood movie is sometimes ‘based on a true story’, the organisation is likely to exaggerate some parts of the tale and completely miss out others so that the story has a particular ‘angle’. Bravehart, Titanic, 127 hours and The Queen all used poetic license to twist a true story into a beginning, middle and an end so that it could tug at the heart strings, ultimately to achieve blockbuster success.

This idea of ‘taking an angle’ is what I think Facebook, Google and others do when they target ads at you. They have pieced together their version of your story without your involvement, and in most cases their assumption is that you are always looking to buy stuff. To their mind it’s the only reason you’ll be on the internet. You’re not there to connect, share and learn, but instead to buy. (To be fair, these companies often have nobler goals like to connect everyone or to organise the world’s information, but to fund these bold endeavours they feel they have to flog stuff to us which is a shame.) Anyway, this assumption – their use of poetic license – is wrong. Sometimes of course, they’ll get the story right and you’ll be looking for something to buy, but we can see that it’s only once in a thousand (and once in two thousand for Facebook) that they’ll show you something you’re actually interested in, and that’s probably more luck than judgement.

Becoming the author, editor and publisher

Stories need to be crafted. This means someone needs to write the words, someone needs to edit them and someone needs to publish them. Most of the time we’re the writer, filling out form after form usually in order to benefit from a product or service. At other times we let others write about us, for example our credit reference agencies or hospitals. And sometimes we’re the editor, when we get to update our data through a self-service portal, or we’re able to mash up our own datasets for other purposes, like with mint.com. And finally social media tools have enabled us to become publishers in our own right.

It’s worth noting that once the data is written down or captured on someone else’s computer we lose control over what happens to it; just like the book that’s put on the bookstore’s shelves, we can’t control who buys and reads it, nor control if it’s copied or if the contents are mashed up with other material to make something new. Indeed I don’t believe that we should we have such control, something that certain element of copyright have been trying to do for a long time… in a previous post I’ve written about how it’s not really possible to have control over our personal data once it’s published; instead we need more transparency over where our data is held and a right to reply when we’re not happy with how it’s used.

Anyway, back to stories. Becoming the author, editor or publisher means that our personal data stories can be set in context, and have intent. In so many cases though it’s someone writing, editing and publishing our personal data and so our stories aren’t told in the right way. Some organisations even sell on our data so that even more organisations can write their version of the story, once again though without our editorial or publishing control.

It’s possible, just possible, that you know more about you than the organisations which want to sell things to you. Like where you actually live. Or what you like. Or when’s best to contact you, if at all. Or the actual reason you bought that album. It’s estimated that right now there are about 200 organisations that have their own ‘version of you’; government departments, online retailers, the driving licence authority, your current and past employers, your broadband provider, your grocery store’s loyalty team.

But what if you could write, edit and publish a single, true story about you, so that these 200 businesses could get what they need, each in context, and each with permission?

Wouldn’t that be a great idea?

The answer is yes. And it’s coming to a cinema near you soon…

Telling stories

[update: I originally put this up this as a single, much longer post, but based on feedback have decided to split it out it into three – the others are here and here)

Recently I wrote about some of the challenges and unwanted outcomes from sharing personal data. But what about the opportunities? I believe that is that there is an important but yet largely untold story about personal data – about sharing it, and about the benefits for us all if it’s done right.

On its own, data is somewhat dry. The fact that I bought Ed Sheeran’s album the other day doesn’t really indicate much other than I spent £11.99 on some music. Many companies might have seen me search for it online or seen the purchase itself and infer that I’m interested in Sheeran and try to sell me tickets to his next up-coming concert tour; others might infer that I’m into that genre of music and try to sell me related artists and albums (“people who bought this, also bought that”); others might further infer that I’m interested in winners of the Ivor Novello award. But no-one really knows why I bought it, except me. It was for some and all of those reasons, and was also in fact a present for someone else. My point is that the organisations will never know that, but many of them will take some of that dry data, mash it together with some other ‘feeds’ they have on me (most probably incorrect – from a ‘hollow me’ stored elsewhere), and make some assumptions about my preferences, and about what I want and need. Then try to sell me some more stuff.

Conversations aren’t necessarily markets

Armed with all that data about my recent music purchase, sometimes those organisations will target adverts at me, usually as I go about my business on the web. And sometimes they’ll get those targeted adverts right. But mostly – and overwhelmingly it’s mostly – they get it wrong. The latest stats on click-through rates from web-based targeted advertising are very interesting indeed (read shocking) when you look at them in the cold light of day:

  • Average: 0.1%
  • Facebook: 0.051%
  • Google: 0.4%

This means ON AVERAGE that for every 1000 people being shown an advert on the web, one person will click through to the company. Really? Think about that for a second, and imagine those odds in another context. For every 1000 people walking into a car show room, one will buy a car. For every 1000 people walking into a shoe shop, only one will buy some shoes. Of course not; the difference with theses cars and shoes is the intent of the individual. In my examples, people are walking into the shop and expressing an interest in a conversation. In Facebook’s case (and by the way for them it’s one in 2000 people clicking through) it’s like walking into a coffee shop and shouting offers at people based on what they are talking about (and to some extent based on who they are with, what they are drinking, what they look like, and which coffee shop they are hanging out it). In that context, then maybe one in 2000 might listen to the person at the till doing the shouting, but it’s an awfully odd way to go about getting business.

In Google’s case it’s like me walking up the high street doing some window shopping and based on the route I take around town, where I have been before and the discussion I’m having with a friend, having people with sandwich-board adverts follow me around, telling me about today’s offers possibly even based on where I’m standing at any one time. That could be relevant, and perhaps is why they are eight times more successful at click through ads than Facebook, but it’s still ridiculous odds, and well a little creepy.

Alan Mitchell, riffing on a Cluetrain meme put it brilliantly when he wrote that: “all markets are conversations. But not all conversations are markets.” In the examples above what’s missing is context. In context, I’m happy for organisations to sell things to me. In context, I might buy those things. In some contexts, I may in fact want to be left alone. And in others, I might even share more information about myself because there’s a benefit to doing so.

My point is this: context is about telling stories. We need stories to make things meaningful, to give them life. I believe that personal data can come to life when we tell the story about the individual – in context. And because it’s a story about personal data, we need to make sure it’s written, edited and published with permission, and only shared with those we trust; with those we have a relationship.

I believe that our personal data stories can be as beautiful, compelling, engaging and meaningful as the greatest stories ever told. So it’s important that we begin to understand where our stories come from, and how we write them.

More on that soon…