What can people do with data that companies alone can’t?

After six years on the VRM case, it seems obvious to me that individuals need to be the points of integration for their own data — and of data about them, held by companies. But it’s not yet obvious to the marketplace, since we still lack suppliers willing either to part with the personal data they already hold, or to provide easy-to-use tools that people can use to combine that data, analyze it and put it to use.

So, to help with that, here are a few starters:

  • Quantified self data. Right now all the data produced by your Withings scale, your Zeo sleep manager, your Nike+ sportwatch, your Omron blood pressure monitor, your Fitbit Flex wristband, your Moves smartphone app, your Sportline heart rate monitor, your MoodScope log, your Accu-Check blood glucose meter and your workout machine data from the gym are silo’d by the companies supplying those devices. Even when that data is open and exportable (as it is, say, with Zeo sleep data), you can’t easily pull that data into one place that is yours, where you can analyze them together, and make fully informed decisions based on that data. There are apps and services, such as Digifit, that can combine data from multiple devices made by multiple manufacturers, but those services are silos as well — and they don’t include data from companies not on a privileged list. If you had that data, you could correlate weight loss or maintenance to specific workout routines, moods or dietary practices. You could present that data to your insurance company or health care provider to get better rates and services from both. The list goes on, and can get very long — especially when you integrate it with the other stuff below.
  • Retail. Think of what you could do if you had all your spendings in electronic form, and not just on paper receipts and invoices, or buried ten clicks deep on Web pages  You could look for ways to spend less money, or spend it more wisely. You could share back some of that data to retailers whose loyalty programs wear blinders toward what you’ve bought elsewhere: intelligence that might get you more favorable treatment from those retailers, while also providing them with better market intelligence.
  • Home expenses management, including energy and utility usage. Today “smart” devices and metering are almost entirely silo’d by manufacturers and utility services, so it’s no wonder almost nobody does anything with the data. The green button initiative is a good start in this direction, but implementation by the energy industry is minimal, while consumer awareness and tools for examining the data are also nearly absent. The only thing suppliers want to make easy to read are the invoices they send out. There is no doubt that we could save a lot of money, and spend it far more wisely, if we could see and manage that data with our own tools. But until we get those tools, we’ll stay in the dark.
  • Media usage. Sometimes, when I talk to a group of people in the U.S., I’ll ask how many listen to public radio. Usually nearly all the hands go up. Then, when I ask how many pay to listen, only about 10% stay raised. But when I ask if people would pay if it were “really easy,” the percentage doubles. If I add, “How about if you didn’t have to endure those ‘pledge breaks’ when the station begs for money and promises you a cup or a CD if you call in,” even more hands go up. The problems to solve here are equating listening with value, and easing the ability to pay. That was the idea behind ListenLog, which was featured on the first edition of the Public Radio Player from PRX. It was a nice experiment, but it was buried too deep in the feature list, and the results weren’t easy to get out and put to use. But it would be cool if our usage of media devices and services would yield data we could gather and use. And, if we shared that data back, it would also help media with subscription systems to improve those as well. Most of those are informed by what can be learned only inside their own silos — or by the conventions that include enticements many of us don’t fall for. This is why, for example, I still don’t subscribe to the New York Times, even though I am a loyal buyer of the paper on news stands and often read it online as well. I would also love to pay for music on a per-listen basis, whether I already own that music or not. While that is totally anomalous today, it might not be if all of us had easy ways to weigh and measure the actual value media has for us.

Keeping this stuff from happening is something of a chicken-and-egg problem. Since we lack tools for examining data from various sources, those sources see no need to share that data. And, in the absence of that data’s availability, we lack tools to do stuff with that data.

In respect to personal data, we are where personal computing was before the spreadsheet and the word processor, and where worldwide communications was before the Internet. Once we had the spreadsheet and the word processor, creative and resourceful individuals could do much more with numbers and words than big companies ever could — and that was good for those companies as well. Likewise, once we had the Internet, each of us could do far more with global communications than phone companies and other big players could alone. And that was good for everybody concerned as well.

And, once we have the means to do our own hacking, on data of any size and provenance, we will do for data what we did for computing and communications: make it personal and productive beyond any imaginings that are possible in the absence of those means.

This is why today’s “Big Data” jive, coming entirely from big companies selling to other big companies, sounds very much like the mainframe business in 1980 and the networking business in 1990. It’s mainframe talk. Nothing wrong with it. Just something very inadequate: it ain’t personal. Worse, it’s highly impersonal, unless it’s about how companies can know you so much better than you know yourself.

But that will change. It has to, because we’ve seen this movie before, and we know how it ends. As soon as it’s clear how much more each of us can do with data than the corporate hoarders can, a $trillion market will open up. Count on it.

What will make that clear? My bet, for now at least, is on personal clouds. You’ll find more on those in today’s link pile. For a look at what companies need to do, see everything Craig Burton is writing about the API economy at KuppingerCole.

And, by the way, both this post and that link pile were written in Fargo: another space to watch.


  1. Larry Irons (@lirons)’s avatar

    Hi Doc,

    The MyEmotionTracker service, a free client journaling service, for people who want to keep track of emotional states that trouble them deletes its data every 30 days and provides clients with the ability to export and archive their own data. Not quite VRM but certainly different from conventional data strategies. See http://www.emotiontracks.com

    We provide a HIPPA compliant, secure way for clients to share their data with psychotherapists as well, but the psychotherapist must print out any data they want to save in the client’s case file.



  2. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Thanks, Larry.

    Here in the UK, they call this corner of QS (quantified self) self hacking. The movement stars Adriana Lukas, a founding figure in the VRM movement as well.

  3. clive boulton’s avatar

    Irony of this chicken-and-egg problem, compelling consumer services end up with the biggest computers on the network, reducing markets overall http://video.ft.com/v/2252642544001/The-man-who-would-monetise-the-web

    With personal cloud the opposite of the personal computer may be needed. SMBs and SMEs collectively have vast number of on-premise systems without these systems being networked together for their benefits. Missing is the compelling incentives to share data. Creating certainty of demand is what they crave in my research.

  4. Sylvain’s avatar

    Expanding the list:
    – My scores at video games, and how much time I spend at each level (those data exist and are tracked by online video games editors)
    – The time I spend (loose) on social networks
    – My transportation data (metro, bus, tramway) to check if I really need a monthly subscription, or should I buy unit tickets
    – A single unified view of my bank accounts in different banks

  5. Drummond Reed’s avatar

    Great list, Doc. Along the lines of Sylvain’s suggestion about financial data consolidation, you didn’t mention health data. The value of having a single consolidated view of my health data and control over sharing it with the health care professionals of my choice would be enormous.

    Another category is insurance. I would love to have all my insurance coverages related to me, my family, and my possessions available in one place I can view, modify/update, and share them. It would not only eliminate a whole file drawer, but enable me to manage them much more easily in true VRM fashion.

  6. Kevin Cox’s avatar

    Like most things value and scarcity are related. If something that others want is in short supply then the value increases.

    Companies do not release personal data both because of privacy reasons but more importantly because if they are the only ones to hold it then it is scarce and hence valuable.

    To overcome this problem we need to work with organisations so they will voluntarily release our own information to us in ways that keep the data “scarce” and in ways in which they can benefit.

    The most obvious way is to provide ways for organisations to sell our verified personal data that is not competitively sensitive to the organisation’s main business. Hence banks really do not care who we are or where we live. They do care about whether we are a good risk so they can sell us products. We are working on approaching the banks so that they will give us as individuals access to non critical information with little or no cost to them and for which they can get paid. The next step is to ask them to give access to our other transaction personal data in an easily transportable verifiable electronic form but in ways that they have a say in its release.

    Organisations will release data if it doesn’t reduce its scarcity value. Hence if they release it to us then they want to have a say in to whom to pass the information. After all the information about us is jointly owned by them and in the same way we do not want them sending information about us to others without our say so so it should be for them. We should not release information an organisation (or a person) gives to us that concerns them without their agreement. Put in place legally binding obligations and systems to ensure this and we will get organisations joining in the personal cloud movement.

  7. Dave Winer’s avatar

    BTW, there’s VRM dimension to Fargo.

    Even though it’s a networked app, running in the browser, the user has all of his or her data, sitting in a folder on their hard disk, in an open format, at all times.

    No need to export.

  8. William’s avatar

    t’s not just people and companies: it’s also NGOs and public services. The whole question of managing personalised cross-boundary care has eluded the data hoarders. One incident that involves an ageing person, a GP, a hospital, the ambulance, social services, and housing breaks the system. Or tracking a complex welfare claim also involving the NHS, immigration and asylum. The organisations can’t fix this. They need the individual.

    In retail there’s the whole “future intentions” part which Alan and Iain first worked on together: the “volunteered personal information” capabilities. Don’t just look back; look forward.

    re home device management checkout the new H.A.T (hub of all things) project. They claim to be unique in ways that might surprise those of us who have shared your journey; they need to connect with this discussion, collaborate and be part of it because they’re interesting people who have scored some useful funding.

    Generally I’d say people can add permissions (eg for data sharing in corss boundary services) and add human insight (eg turn “this person is seeking a specific tool” into “what is the problem I’m trying to solve”.

  9. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Thanks, Dave. My next post was written in Fargo as well. Amazing how much faster and easier it is in to blog from an outline than from WordPress’ composing window. Once I get the post up in Fargo, and make a few iterative improvements, I can do a few finishing touches in the composing window. Structure first, formatting second.

  10. Paul Bouzide’s avatar

    I’ve bought into this vision for awhile. I agree that $trillions in overall commerce could become unlocked. And it’s great to see personal cloud and protected, open data format products emerging. But as Clive mentions above, I have some question about the incentives, and not just to share their “model of you” data.

    There’s also this insight: “There is no doubt that we could save a lot of money, and spend it far more wisely, if we could see and manage that data with our own tools.” I believe this too. But isn’t saving money and spending wisely anathema to the BigCos who seem to wear their short-term results blinders with considerably more zeal than the strategic long term grow-the-pie and grow-my-share X-ray specs…

  11. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Paul, I’ve become convinced, especially over the last few months, that most big companies are either indifferent or actively hostile to the prospect of a truly free customer. They believe that captive customers are worth more than free ones, and that their standing business models must be protected from all threats, real and imagined. The very idea that an individual can do more with Big Data than they can is very threatening to them.

    There are some exceptions (see this item about Intel today, for example) but that’s the rule on the whole.

    And, for the reason you give in your second paragraph, we’re more likely to see friendly moves and real help from big nonprofits and/or privately held companies than from publicly held ones.

    Maybe the VCs will wake up, but I’m not holding my breath. They’re still into the social-mobile-cloud + big-data/analytics thing. (Though maybe there’s an angle for VRM in mobile payments.)

    Still, I remain convinced that VRM and personal clouds will succeed. It just won’t be with the help of the usual suspects.

    It never is. Canal companies couldn’t do railroads, and railroad companies couldn’t make cars. One mainframe company — IBM — could make PCs, but succeeded almost by accident and then tried to lock up the barn from which the horses escaped. (Remember Microchannel?)

    VRM and personal clouds will have to succeed on their own. Joining them will be companies that see no harm in releasing at least some personal data. And we’re starting to see that. (For example, with the Mesinfos project in France, which involves seven large French companies.)

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