Imagine a world in which you are paid for data about your or that you create, or at least compensated in some tangible way, beyond free access to content, a la Facebook and Twitter. A Seattle company has taken a step in this direction. Placed Insights, according to a note in Crosscut, has developed a smartphone app that tracks your shopping habits in exchange for points that you can trade for goods and money, indirectly. Earn enough points, and you could get an Amazon gift card, win a prize, and yes, actual cash. A screenshot in the Crosscut story shows an option to trade 5,000 Placed Insight points for $5 “cash” via PayPal. (Placed Insights uses the data to give retailers insight about customer behavior.)
Most of the discussion about data collection focuses on privacy, that is, whether or not corporations or governments can protect data from other people or agencies that shouldn’t see it. While privacy is important, that horse has left the barn; the recent revelations about the NSA’s spying program show that governments and major corporations can’t be trusted to protect privacy if there’s something to gain. I think we should turn our attention away from protecting privacy to realizing the intrinsic value of the data and creating a market that fairly compensates the original owner and creator of the data–you–for sharing it. Many people much smarter than myself, computer scientist Jaron Lanier among them, have already suggested this.
Placed Insights’ program implies that each of the user’s data points has a knowable value, though the exact amount of that value is unclear. Is a “point” equivalent to each click of a mouse, for example? Does the exchange of $5 for 5,000 points mean that each data point is equivalent to $.001? (That’s 1/1000th of a cent.) How did the company arrive at this valuation? Certainly not in an open marketplace. Still, it’s a public acknowledgement that each piece of data has a monetary value, something that Big Data collectors rarely discuss.
What if an open marketplace similar to a commodities exchange allowed buyers to bid for each type of data point (personal data, buying behavior, and so on)? What if the dollar value of each data point became a “nano-payment,” and each time you provided that data point, that value was deposited into a personal data payment account, and amounts in the account could be exchanged for goods, services, or cash? Given the volume of data each of us generates on a daily basis, the accounts could grow fairly quickly. Companies would know the intrinsic value of the data, which would give them an incentive to protect it, and perhaps go a long ways to solving the bugaboo of privacy.