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Daniel Kaplan has worked with Orange, Société Générale, Axa and others on the pioneering personal data sharing project, MesInfos. He told Tim Green about the pilot, the ‘trust paradox’ and why fun, not privacy, will drive the personal data economy…

If you’re going to force a bold new idea into life, you need persuasive people to do it. When it comes to the personal data economy, Daniel Kaplan is one of those people.

At the recent MyData conference in Helsinki, he was everywhere. But mostly on stage. He’s very very well connected.

Kaplan is one of France’s leading digital thinkers. In 1986, he founded one of the world’s first digital communication agencies, JKLM, and more recently has dedicated himself to exploring the social impact of tech.

He’s written or edited more than 25 books and public reports and sits on various public bodies including France’s National Digital Council.

But his main focus is the think tank, Fing (Next Generation Internet Foundation), which he launched in 2000. Fing is a non-profit that tries to anticipate new directions in the link between tech and society. It shares these insights in an open manner, with brands, law-makers and the wider innovation ecosystem.

Earlier in the decade, Fing began to think about the question of online data – who owns it, and how it can be made to work more effectively. That led to a project called MesInfos, which ran its first experiment during 2013 and 2014. MesInfos was similar to the UK Government’s midata initiative, although the French government played no part in it. It aimed to explore how companies and public agencies could share personal data back to customers for their own use – and assess the benefits. 

Mesinfos worked with 300 ‘real’ customers and with large companies including Banque Postale, Credit Cooperatif, Société Générale (bank account data), Intermarché (retail purchase data) and Axa (insurance contracts). The project selected French startup Cozy Cloud to provide the platform through which users could access their data.

    If you think about why companies started to gather data, it was because they wanted to do one to one marketing. But actually the quality of personalisation is lousy, and consumers are more fickle than they’ve ever been.

(An interview with Cozy Cloud will appear soon on the MEF Minute).

Cozy gives people a ‘personal cloud’ containing all a person’s calendars, contacts, files, mails, and all kinds of personal data. But it also lets users download apps that sync with this data. The aim of MesInfos was to encourage the aforementioned brands, as well as third-party entrepreneurs, to built these apps.

MesInfos taught Kaplan a lot about the potential of data sharing. The project is still running and has now entered pilot mode, with no limitation in time or the number of users

MEF sat down with Kaplan at the recent MyData conference in Helsinki to hear more about his ideas and the MesInfos experience…

What made you interested in the potential of the personal data economy?

I’d founded Fing and was looking a lot at societal issues around digital. In 2010 we did some work on identity and trust, and I started to to think: why do we not let people do meaningful things with their own data?

I became more and more aware that people feel they have asymmetric data relationships with companies. These companies have so much data, but we have virtually none. But at the same time there’s a trust paradox – people are worried about data privacy, but that they are not acting on that worry. 

Our intuition was: They’re not acting because they can only act to protect themselves, not in order to do something meaningful with their data.

We did some academic research, which got a good response. And we were aware of the work that the UK government and Control Shift was doing with Midata, so we thought it might be worth pursuing. Then we launched MesInfos.

What’s the status of MesInfos now?

We had a good response from the users and the brands. It’s still in pilot mode, but there’s no specific end date. We need to make the project independent of Fing now. That could be non-profit that gathers together everyone in France whose interested or it could be a informal project that’s part of a larger organisation – though it should not to be controlled by any one player. There’s still work to be done on standards and business models and so on.

We have a dozen or so large companies in the consortium from banking, telco, insurance and government. The Data Protection Authority in France is really behind it. They see it as a positive way of protecting and empowering people.

Do people care that much about privacy?

They do, but it’s not what is going to propel this idea. This has to be about helping people make better decisions and have more fun and do things more conveniently. I always say that we don’t learn to drive to buckle our seat belts. We drive so we can go somewhere – and on the way we buckle up.

I think we can build those experiences. As things stand, it’s really hard to mix and match the data to create those experiences, because companies keep it in silos, which don’t talk to each other very well. It makes sense for people to be at the centre of that data exchange.

But the user experience has to be right. People expect to be protected, and they like to be empowered, but if we ask them to micro manage their data, it won’t happen.  

So what might that user experience look like?

I expect it will come in the form of many apps based on a handful of platforms. One example would be an app centred around banking data that aggregates all your different accounts. But it would do more than just show you your activity. You’d be able to click on something that happened – something you bought or a deposit you made – and go back to the transaction. You’d be able to see more information and maybe communicate with the third party.

I think there will be apps around chronic diseases. Diabetes patients are very militant about taking back their data, but as of now they can only get the day’s measurement. I think they’ll demand apps with data that show their history and reveal medical patterns or show what might happen when you eat this or do that.

You say there will be ‘a handful of platforms’. Whose?

Ideally there will be a small number, but they will be interoperable and thousands of apps would work with them. I realise there is no way big bank X is going to spend time doing development work with dozens of startups. But they can publish APIs, and there should be a way for startups to use those APIs. 

It won’t be easy. Companies will have to change their IT systems and their culture. They need to get used to the idea of sharing data, and doing so not with a handful of large organisations but millions of consumers.

Ultimately, what’s the incentive for companies to embrace the personal data economy?

Well, if you think about why they started to gather data, it was because they wanted to do one to one marketing. But actually the quality of personalisation is still lousy online, and consumers are more fickle than they’ve ever been. So it’s not working. And now consumers are even downloading ad blockers – it’s 40 per cent of traffic on some sites. I think sharing data will give some brands the opportunity to build more trust and loyalty.

You’ve been thinking about this idea for six years. Do you sense a momentum around it now?

I do. When we started, there was a little geeky group, there were thinkers like Doc Searls and things like MiData, us, and that was about it. We still have the militants – and we need them – but now we see business people and brands getting interested. There were 600 people in Finland from 30 different countries.

We met some people from Microsoft, who’d done a paper on the topic but thought they were alone. They went to Helsinki and it blew their minds.