Algorithmic Attention – The new face of personal data and why brands need to catalyze the creation of Personal APIs

You want to build a personal relationship with your customers, become a constant companion and trusted advisor. Your customers deserve the professionalism embodied by the best coaches, concierges, maître’s d, doctor, teacher, and bartenders – well informed and impeccably discreet. However, this level of human attention simply does not scale.

Fortunately, the ubiquitous mesh of digital devices, applications, services, and connectivity is here capturing every aspect of a person’s life. All this data, coupled with accelerating advances in computational techniques and ever falling compute and storage costs, mean the algorithmic attention you can lavish on your customers is boundless.

The quality of the experience provided by an algorithm, however, depends on factors shared with the humans they emulate:

1) The capability of the person or algorithm to take in a set of disparate information and synthesize it into meaningful insights.

2) Sufficient, up-to-date, accurate information describing a wide swath of the customer’s life – their context – for the algorithm to process. The data available through social networks may be helpful, but is insufficient.

For illustration, let’s consider a hypothetical service called MyBabyBlends.

MyBabyBlends is a nutrition program for babies. Subscribers will receive direct shipment of locally grown, seasonal ingredients that can be, following our carefully curated recipes and meal plans, prepared into fabulous baby foods. The selection of ingredients tailored for your babies through the use of a sophisticated child development and nutrition algorithm. Tracking the daily activities and developmental progress of your babies, it’s like having a dedicated nutritionist shopping and menu planning for you.

To deliver on this promise, the algorithm will require the following information, updated regularly:

  •   Baby’s names – for families with more than one, you need to create a profile for each child.
  • Baby’s vitals – birthdate, weight, height, known allergies or sensitivities, current ailments or medication, blood type, etc.
  • Dietary restrictions – vegan, kosher, halal, paleo, etc.
  • Developmental milestones and challenges
  • Current location – if you go away – the shipment will meet you and be adjusted to your new location.
  • Log of recipes liked and not liked
  • Parental eating preferences so we can get baby on track to join you in a hearty kale salad or a bowl of pork and habanero chili.
  • Genetic information – a DNA sample will provide the best results, in lieu of that the parents can answer a comprehensive questionnaire about the baby’s heredity.

This is the new face of personal data. It is not about cookies, or purchase history. It is not about traditional CRM . It’s more than social media.  Quantified self and the Internet of Things are a part of it.

This is the Personal Data Ecosystem that the World Economic Forum, Boston Consulting Group and others have estimated will create trillions of dollars of value stand in the next 4-5 years. These estimates have also asserted that 2/3 of that value will be left on the table if a viable solution to digital identity and data access is not established.

Getting the data required poses a number of challenges for both the user and the brand.

  1. Effort – How much effort is required to get started and then maintain the program? Will the user be willing to manually input this data just to try this one service? Can that data entry be leveraged for other products and services?
  2. Trust – Why would I provide all of this information to a high-tech grocery service? Who else will have access to my child’s data? How do I know it is being handled appropriately?
  3. Liability – What liability is a brand exposing itself to as it collects more intimate information about its customers? If working with partners to provide the service, how does that impact the liability question?
  4. Infrastructure and Governance – Does the brand have the appropriate systems, staff and procedures in place to manage this sort of information?
  5. Policy & Legislation – There has been increasing public policy and legislative action activity globally with respect to personal data. Some of the initiatives have found that existing terms and conditions agreements in use do not meet the privacy rights of their citizens. Others are looking to insure that data regarding their citizens remains within their borders.

The solution lies in the establishment of Personal APIs, a means for a user to aggregate their digital information, wherever it may live and then provide, on their own terms, programmatic access to that data. This gives users a single place to keep up to date information and manage who has access to what and when. It also gives brands a simple way to access user while respecting both the users’ terms and the legal constraints of the market they are operating in. Furthermore, it may reduce liability because it allows for the development of application that use the personal information, but do not store it.

There has been a tremendous amount of work done establishing the foundation for Personal APIs under a variety of names including: IdM (Identity Management), Project VRM (Vendor Relationship Management), UMA (User Managed Access), Trust Frameworks, Privacy by Design, Personal Clouds, Data Vaults, Personal Data Markets, and Identity Ecosystems.  These initiatives have failed to gain widespread adoption, because the value proposition for both sides of the market (users or the brands) has not been strong enough, until now.

This is the moment for a few leading brands to step forward and catalyze the Personal API movement and realize the dream of meaningful personalization.

For those interested in getting involved, the Internet Identity Workshop (IIW) is a great place to start. This un-conference has been convened twice a year since 2005. IIW 18 will be happening October 26-28 at the Computer History Museum in the heart of Silicon Valley.



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