posted on Slashdot yesterday in which the asker sought advice on an electronic cash register set up that would output sales data in an open format. While the asker was looking for information from the point of view of a shop owner, it got me thinking about data portability. There's been a lot of clamor over the past few months about who owns attention data and a major online movement has started with the aim of pushing companies into granting access to that data to the users who create it. But what about offline attention data? Should we demand access to that as well?There was a question
Data and Who Owns It
Attention data, and its cousin sales data, is very important for companies because it allows them to personalize services to specific users. By looking at your past purchases, Amazon can make recommendations about new products you might like. By looking at what you've listened to, Last.fm and make recommendations about new musicians you might enjoy. Netflix can do the same with movie rentals, Facebook can do it with advertisements, Digg will soon do it with news, etc. But the question is: who owns that data?
"Intuitively, the information belongs to the consumer, but when we look into the details, things become less clear. We explicitly choose to use Amazon, to click and to buy things there," wrote Alex Iskold in August. "Everything we do is a two way street, since Amazon provides a service and we transact with it, it seems that they should have a right to the data as well."
Even today, on this blog, we made a call for a company to open data to users. Sarah Perez called out Facebook for their timid foray into lifestreaming that doesn't allow users to export their data out of the service. And she's right, of course. Facebook's new mini-feed service would be ten times more powerful and useful to users if it didn't just aggregate outside and on site data (which Facebook will undoubtedly mine for ad targeting purposes), but also let users take it back out.
However, does Facebook have an obligation to allow the portability of all user data on the site? Even if they didn't support data portability, whose data is it? Users generated it, but voluntarily (i.e., no one forces you to put any information on Facebook), so do those users have a right to demand it back?
Real World Data Portability
But even while the debate rages online about whether sites should be required to give users access to their data, there is a whole wealth of attention data that we're creating offline as well. Should we have access to that, too? What about every movie we've rented from Blockbuster? Every book we've checked out of the library? Our purchasing habits at Costco? How often and where we fill up our gas tanks? Even where our GPS systems take us or from where we're making cellular phone calls, to whom, and for how long are potentially trackable pieces of data.
Every time I make a purchase at my local CVS pharmacy, I swipe a discount card. I do it because I get coupons back for things I purchase, and CVS can tailor those coupons to me because it knows my purchasing habits. Should I be able to have access to that sales data as well? Should CVS let me bring my sales history to Walgreens and see what coupons Walgreens gives me? Of course, that option doesn't exist right now at either CVS or Walgreens -- but increasingly it does exist online, because we asked for it. So why not offline?
There is a ton of offline attention and sales data out there. If we're demanding access to that information online, shouldn't we ask for it offline as well?
The answer, in my opinion, is yes: we should be asking for it. But companies should be under no obligation to part with it -- offline or online. It is certainly a great bonus when a company gives you comprehensive access to your attention data in an easily exportable format. That has a lot of advantages for the consumer, and is probably a good idea long term for many companies as well. But our dealings with the services that collect this information are generally opt in. That is, if we don't want them collecting our data, we should simply walk away.
What do you think? Does real world data portability have any merit? Do you know of any "offline" companies that offer customers access to that sort of information already?