Understanding how people interact with their data

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Understanding how people interact with their data

This post is based on a talk at Nesta’s workshop The Future of Personal Data and Privacy, 10 May 2017.

Despite the enormous technological advances of the past 50 years, when it comes to data management, we really haven’t progressed very far. In the 1960s we had big data silos with big magnetic tapes. Fast forward to today and we have big data silos with small magnetic disks. Now we talk about clouds instead of mainframes, but it’s essentially the same thing. People’s data, your data, is on someone else’s server.

The siloed nature of data management creates a range of problems. Businesses with a silo mentality are always going to try to hoard and collect as much data value as possible - be it older established companies in big pharma and telecoms or the new kids on the block like Facebook, Google and Uber. The customer data they hold is added as an asset on their balance sheets driving multi-billion dollar valuations.

The result is that these businesses naturally start to think of their customers as numbers: data and dollars. For instance, Facebook earns around $15 per quarter per user in the US and Western Europe. Everyone who uses Facebook is in effect paying $60 a year for the service. Their lifeblood is now personal data.

As companies find evermore ways to monetise our personal data, people are waking up to the value their data could have for themselves. The problem is we can’t unlock this value, because our system of data management is stuck in the 1960s.

"As companies find evermore ways to monetise our personal data, people are waking up to the value their data could have for themselves. The problem is we can’t unlock this value, because our system of data management is stuck in the 1960s."

People want to either withdraw from the aspects of the personal data deal or start exchanging their data on their own terms, but the siloed approach of the internet giants is impeding this. This is causing a real disconnect. The result is dysfunctional personal data marketplaces wherever our data is transacted. For example 56 per cent of market researchers report that personal data collection methods are no longer fit for purpose in market research.

We can do things differently

There is an alternative to this, but we need to help people to interact with their data differently. There’s a growing realisation that there’s a transactional element to data that people can actually participate in. This is creating a marketplace that is a burgeoning part of the internet, and if we get it right, it’s going to set the direction for the next ten or 15 years of the internet’s development.

The way to change this is enabling a move towards individuals having a copy of their own data. The meaning of “Ownership” is different in a digital world. If I take a picture in the analogue world, there will only be one copy of that picture unless I pay to have it replicated.

In the digital world, I can take a picture with my smartphone and it’s immediately replicated on my cloud storage and across my devices. If I then post it on Facebook, it can replicate endlessly with every new like, share or view. Without me doing anything, there can suddenly be thousands of versions of that image, all ‘owned’ by friends (and friends of friends) on their social media feeds, blogs or wherever. It’s the same with all of our data.

At Citizenme, we give people ownership of a copy of their personal data. We can then stitch it together, and link and layer that data on a device using AI, for each person, to give them lots of deep and personal insights. This is where people experience the real ‘value’ derived from all those bits and bytes. With the growing prevalence of smartphones, and abundant storage and CPU to turn data into insights, we have the means to do this at scale across the world.

How do we get people to engage with their data differently?

We’ve spent the last two years doing lots of research about what motivates people to want to use their own data differently. We’ve realised that the real driver for getting mass adoption is people understanding the personal value of their personal data. What’s the visceral, individual thing, that’s going to encourage you to interact?

We think there are four pull factors for enabling people to better interact with their data.

  • First, it’s enabling people to directly participate on their terms in existing marketplaces.
  • Second, it’s about understanding that the value isn’t really the data. Data is boring. What’s interesting is the insights that come from the data, and the deep insights come from linking lots of different, eclectic pieces of data. And that can be anything from purchase decisions: e.g: Do I need a new washing machine because I can see from my smart meter data that the machine might break down in the next three months? Through to more serious insights like: Am I going to get diabetes in the next five years? Based on my step count, my height, my weight, my age, my dietary habits. These are the meaningful, life insights that have deep value to us all as individuals.
  • The third big driver is donation, where we find that people would like to be able to gift their data for a good cause, say to Oxfam, UNICEF or WWF.
  • And finally, fun. The fun, light, Buzzfeed-style content - based on science - which is another driver for interaction, for example: Are you more or less intelligent than your Facebook friends?

Citizen relationships with data

Using these four principles, we’re understanding how digital citizens participate with their data in different ways, and in doing so, unlock its value for themselves. We’ve analysed the types of traits that people display in relation to sharing and interacting with their data. The result is a map of human/data relationships. We all display elements of each of the four values depending on context: the who, where, what, why and when of the personal data interaction.

data personalities

Image: four traits of user behaviour around personal data

We’ve already identified four traits: 'Defender', i.e. people who are driven by protecting their data. When we’re in defender mode we’re concerned about how our data is being used. An example might be when we provide an insurance company with personal health information.  

Secondly, a person with a strong ‘Futurist’ trait will tend to trust in the technology. Good examples of people with innately strong futurist traits might be Mark Zuckerberg or Elon Musk.

Thirdly, we have 'Earners': viewing the digital interaction as transactional and about optimising personal financial outcomes. An example is using a price comparison site when booking a holiday.

Finally we have ‘Improvers’, who are self-actualisers. An example would be using a Garmin watch to monitor heart fitness while in the gym.

Preliminary insights from our research show that the behaviours at the top of the map tend to be more intellectually driven, the bottom tend to be more about personal benefit. The left tends to be more cynical, the right tends to be more optimistic and trusting. The model is a work in progress and we’ve identified two additional interaction measures that complete the picture.

All of this analysis enables citizens to better understand themselves. When this happens, brands, governments and other organisations can understand them better too.

If we are going to build a flourishing new digital era, it needs to work for each of us as individual digital citizens first. It’s only with empowerment through democratisation of our personal data, that we citizens can truly participate in the creation of a vibrant, global digital community that works for all.


StJohn Deakins

Founder and CEO, CitizenMe