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The monetary and social value in our data - An interview with Citizenme

As part of the newly launched DECODE project, we’ve been talking to a range of companies, charities and cooperatives involved in giving people better value and user experience in how they manage and control their personal data online.

We recently caught up with Citizenme, a service that helps people to capture the rich insights in their data. In what follows, team member Josh talks to me about releasing personal data’s monetary and social value, online privacy as a fundamental human right, and plans for the app to integrate new features using privacy-preserving AI.

First off, how would you describe what Citizenme does?

Citizenme exists to empower people with their personal data, by giving them value for it. Our app lets citizens collect the data they generate about themselves from around the internet into a single place.

Using AI Citizenme provides citizens with personal insights based on this data (anything from do you over or underspend on your energy bill, to what your personality is like on Facebook, to the impact exercise has on your mood), which they can choose to exchange alongside other data with brands for cash rewards (for research).

What’s the problem you’re trying to solve as an organisation?

The main issue we're trying to solve is that the internet in its current format is a very inequitable place in terms of the value we get from our data. Our data has huge value to businesses, who increasingly want more and more data about us, but we're cut out of that value exchange as companies harvest our data without our knowledge.

"... the internet in its current format is a very inequitable place in terms of the value we get from our data."

We're starting to see a shift happen though in that people are becoming more aware of this and are starting to lock down their data - just look at the most recent ad blocking figures - approaching 50 million installed on smartphones alone. But people are locking their data down because they're not getting a fair exchange, and we have no control over who uses it, and what companies we have to interact with via advertising.

We believe we can change this though by giving people back more control and value from their data. One side of this is monetary value - exchanging your data with companies for a fair cash reward directly, but another is actually that our data can help us find out more about ourselves and the world around us in useful ways.

Right now our data exists in silos across the internet - Google, Facebook, Amazon, and so on. All these companies think they 'own' our data - and they have a narrow view of us from the data they collect - but no one has the full picture (which they're all of course desperate for!).

But if we put the individual back at the centre of that, by allowing people to collect their data into a single place that they have control over, it becomes infinitely more powerful than when it exists in these silos. The insights we provide users in the app are a result of connecting the dots from what can seem disparate places, by using smart AI to surface meaningful insights that are relevant and personal to each individual.

Why do you think people should take more of an interest about control of, and access to, their data?

There are a whole range of reasons people should care about access and control of their data online - there are a couple that for me are the most important though. The first is really about the issue of privacy. Privacy is a fundamental human right every citizen has. But unfortunately it's not something we've always had in the past, and not something everyone even has today (mainly in countries with strict dictatorships).

As a basic human right, that extends to our use of the internet, I believe it's something worth caring about. We should have the right to know who uses our data and what they're doing with it, and we should be in control of that.

"We should have the right to know who uses our data and what they're doing with it, and we should be in control of that."

In these discussions it's sometimes easy to get privacy and secrecy confused. The classic response is to say 'I have nothing to hide', but that is both a slightly privileged view, and usually not true. I think we forget our data in the wrong hands, or out of context, can be used against us, and sometimes can even be extremely dangerous. Probably one of the worst examples of this from history is the Dutch census information falling into the hands of the Nazis, which gave them the names and addresses of thousands of Jews.

A more everyday example is would you want your employer to see your internet history which shows you looking for other jobs? When we don't have control, our data can be used in ways we would never consider, and has the potential to be weaponised against us.

The second reason people should care is that actually our data has a huge amount of value that at present we're not seeing. Yes we get free services online, but the trade-off is being bombarded with adverts as our data is packaged up and sold to thousands of other companies. It has huge value for businesses - so why shouldn't we see more of that value?

How is personal data stored and processed by Citizenme, and how might this provide a beneficial option in the context of GDPR?

Citizenme wants to see and touch as little of your data as possible. Right now, all data you pull into the app about yourself is stored on your smartphone, which you can back up in encrypted format to a personal cloud. If we stored all of that highly personal (and identifiable) information ourselves we'd become a hack magnet.

Right now the only data we store is email address and password, but later this year we won't even store that. The great thing about this is it gives users complete control (and security) of their data, and is fully GDPR compliant as the only data we handle has the consent of the user each time they exchange it with a brand, and leaves their phone in an anonymised format.

What wider benefits does Citizenme offer beyond the individual (i.e. society, charities, businesses?)

Businesses get access to rich, integrated data (survey questions, social media, psychographic, health, etc) for research from a single place, and the user gets a fair reward and is in complete control of who they exchange their data with.

Right now if businesses want access to multiple data sources about consumers, they have to go to a number of  different companies to get it (who collect it in an unethical way), and that data can't be integrated together. We solve that by breaking down the data silos and integrating data around the individual, while giving citizens complete control of who they share their data with.

We also allow our users to 'do good' with their data by donating it to charity. This allows charities to do free market research as citizens get the altruistic value of donating their data instead of paying them a cash reward. The value our data has isn't just monetary, so why shouldn't we be able to do some good with it and contribute to charitable causes?

"The value our data has isn't just monetary, so why shouldn't we be able to do some good with it and contribute to charitable causes?"

Right now we're largely operating in the market research and data innovation space, but as we grow we will move into other parts of the marketing wheel, including customer acquisition, while putting the user in control of the interactions they have.

For example, if we're providing an insight to an individual that’s based on their smart meter data, they can be informed that their fridge is about to pack in, and if they want we can then show them appropriate offers to buy a replacement. That could disrupt the advertising industry (which needs to change) by moving to continuous marketing - where customer intent is matched with relevant market supply through an AI-driven marketplace.

What future plans do you have to innovate with new services using personal data, while maintaining user privacy and consent?

We've got lots of interesting plans to develop Citizenme further. Without going into too much detail we have research projects going on around differential privacy, as a way to make individuals' data even more anonymous when they exchange lots of potentially personally identifiable information.

We're also increasingly putting the machine learning on devices. This safeguards the privacy of the data further as we touch less and less data to do the number crunching required to provide insights- and goes a step further than many existing AI tools which are internet dependent, meaning if you lose signal, you lose access to the AI. Hopefully we’ll have some big announcements in this area later this year though - we’re super excited about it!

 

Author

Theo Bass

Theo Bass

Theo Bass

Senior Researcher, Government Innovation

Theo is a Senior Researcher in Nesta's Research, Analysis and Policy Team

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