Is Personal Data the Next Killer App for the Web?

We are living in an unprecedented era in which personal data about our digital identity, our online activity, our financial dealings, our geo-location and even our Social Graph – is widely available across the Web. If you think about the amount of data that you create on a daily basis – and the amount that can be tracked and recorded – the figure is truly staggering. By 2020, 50 billion devices will be connected to the Internet. What if this personal data actually became an economic asset that could be widely traded and exchanged with anyone from your local retailer to a government health organization?

That’s the basic underlying thesis of a recent 40-page report by the World Economic Forum and Bain called Personal Data: The Emergence of a New Asset Class. The title of the report, of course, borrows from the world of Modern Portfolio Theory, in which investors attempt to diversify their assets across a number of different uncorrelated categories – from stocks and bonds to real estate and commodities. In the true meaning of Modern Portfolio Theory, of course, this diversification even extends to our human capital. (In layman's terms: if you work for an oil company, don't invest all your retirement savings in oil stocks). So is it time for personal data to be added to the mix as another asset class with an agreed upon economic value?

Successful Internet companies like Google and Facebook already de facto recognize this fact. In many ways, their business models are based on the notion that they will be more profitable, the more information you share with them. Obviously, your personal data has value for them - often with enormous privacy implications, as Facebook has found out time and time (and time) again. But it’s not just Internet companies that value your data – any retailer would love to know your shopping patterns and your precise GPS location at any point in time. A government health agency would like to know more about your personal health habits than just the standardized information provided every 10 years via the U.S. Census.

If personal data is to become an asset, it will require the collective realization by the Internet hive mindthat the massive proliferation of data that the Internet now makes available has real economic value. Thiunk about what’s tracked these days: where you shop, which websites you visit (and the order that you visit them), your credit score, your hospital records, who your friends are, where you are at any point in time (if you're using a smart phone with GPS functionality).

In fact, as a recent article from Bloomberg BusinessWeek points out, making sense of all this personal data is the single biggest challenge for Web companies. Make sense of this data – that is, find clever ways to get people to click on all your shiny buttons - and you’re well on your way to monetizing the Web. You’d be surprised at just exactly how many companies are attempting to “data-mine” your information on the Web right now as you read this article – information that you’ve left out there either through neglect, laziness or justnaivete

But is it fair that Web companies are able to monetize your personal data (apologies - “monetize” is the industry jargon du jour) that justly belongs to you and you alone? Right now, there is an asymmetric ability between businesses and governments being able to monetize this data, and individual citizens being able to transform this data into a unit of economic value.

So what needs to happen if personal data is to become a new economic asset class? First of all, there’s the transparency issue of knowing who knows what, when. And, then there’s the matter of standardizing the value of your personal data – if I know who your top 100 friends are on Facebook - is that worth more or less than information about your precise geo-location over the past 6 months? Obviously, a lot has to go right for personal data to be freely converted into an economic asset – but whichever company figures it out has just discovered the next Killer App for the Web.

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