When the Beastie Boys rapped about fighting for the right to party in 1986, the Internet was a fledgling computer network used by American universities to share data.
Thirty-six years later, regulators on both sides of the Atlantic are fighting over your right to own the personal data held by companies. It’s a mission that St. John Deakins, the company’s CEO, also values No. 1 rating MarTech 50 of CitizenMe.
Back in 2012, two years before founding the London-based startup, Deakins made a Gonzo-style documentary: Twitter commentary – who emphasized the power of the Internet to connect people around the world.
“It can be a real power forever, but it’s often beaten down. Fear makes better news than positivity [experience]”, he tells BusinessCloud. “But then the question has to be asked: What is happening in terms of our rights? You have this new global society, but there is no organization that can really protect it for all of us.
“You could see [back in 2012] that there were many, many potential harms and bad scenarios to enter into in a pure market world of unmanaged data. Most people want to behave well, but they are mainly motivated to collect as much data as possible.’
After leaving the mobile digital media platform 3ple-Media3ple earlier tweet Deakins was able to “map out” his vision of an alternative framework where people take back control of their data.
“The more I researched it, the more I saw that there was going to be a massive problem with personal data because it’s fueling everything,” he explains. “If the Internet is for people and to serve people, then you have to figure out who those people are by moving a lot of data around.
“You end up consolidating into three or four different companies, because that’s how markets work when they’re not regulated — that’s what we’ve come to with these massive data monopolies.
“We have been in this transition for 20 years. My Apple Watch takes all my vitals all the time and sends them to Apple, which is very useful for me, but I don’t really have any control over that data.
“It must be distributed. You have to give everyone individual agency and opportunity to participate – you have to give them a copy of their own data that’s in them, not on a server somewhere.”
Move to the edge
Ironically, given that Apple invented the device, the smartphone could be the solution to putting data ownership back in the hands of citizens. “Smartphones now have enough memory [to do this]” says Deakins. “We have more computing power in our pockets than what was on the moon 50 years ago…and we’re using it to play Candy Crush!
“It’s quite possible to just push everything to the edge: you become the best source of data about yourself because you have Sainsbury’s data, NatWest banking data and Strava data all in one place. There is nowhere else in the world where all this data should be combined.”
CitizenMe started with an introduction market research and consumer insights sector. It has already worked with global brands such as Barclays, Sainsbury’s, Unilever, GSK and the BBC to offer audiences high-quality information on lifestyle choices such as health and finance, which is crucially ethical and transparent.
This “zero” approach has so far helped nearly 500,000 “citizens” take control of and benefit from their data, with over 10 million completed transactions across 400+ data types accessed through API connections.
“Every time you share data, you get some value out of it,” Deakins explains. “You can share data to see what everyone else in the community is thinking; you can donate data for medical research; or share data for cash or voucher.
“If you’re a type 1 diabetic, you can learn how 10,000 other type 1 diabetics are managing their glucose levels before heading out for their morning walk. It’s valuable – and it’s all verified, from real people, and anonymously.
“It’s like an upside-down social network where you start with people first… you have to figure out the human experience first and make people happy and then work backwards. The growth of the community so far has been word of mouth… for me, a platform has to be something that people will tell each other about and have that kind of inherent virality before you go out and do a huge marketing campaign.”
Better anonymous data
CitizenMe, which was initially funded by serial entrepreneur Deakins’ latest exit, won the backing of angel investors before completing its first an institutional round last year of $2 million from Mercia-led North East Venture Fund with participation from 1818 Venture Capital.
It is now moving to a software-as-a-service platform targeting growth in the UK and US markets.
“A major US retailer, the largest telecommunications company in the US, and the largest credit card company have approached us to license the entire suite of our technology to their customers,” says Deakins.
“Most large loyalty programs will buy third-party data from Equifax, Experian and big data brokers to try to better understand their customers and better serve them. At this point, this information is often out of date, incomplete and inaccurate.
“Because of all the regulations that apply in the US and Europe, the industry is going to go from third-party data to zero data: so you’ll have a 360-degree view of your customer, buying in-store and online, but you won’t know anything else about their lives and you can’t buy that data anymore because it’s toxic.
“So obviously you just have to ask people. A company that works with a large loyalty program can take our technology and put it into their existing loyalty program to allow people to collect their own data privately on their phones and choose what to share with that retailer.”
The entrepreneur has also taken steps to facilitate this larger picture of the struggle for rights.
“We need to create an economy [around this zero-party data phase] as well as some management of it. The first thing I did was point this out: when we get to the critical mass we need, we have a governing body that we help create and that we fund with a percentage of our profits that helps make sure that companies like us are properly regulated and subscribed to certain conditions which benefit all.’