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Michael Becker, speaks with Jessica Dittmar, CMO of polypoly about the evolution of the personal data and identity marketplace.

In my discussion with Jessica Dittmar, CMO of polypoly, she highlights the need for a “new [decentralized] data economy,” which is what many call the “personal data economy.” According to Jessica and polypoly, this new economy will benefit businesses, the government, and people alike. They predict that it will give people—who are, in effect, data subjects—more control of their data and privacy, help everyone mitigate the risk of data breaches and corresponding harms that result from related cybercrime and the mishandling of data, and help them generate better data insights for increased profitability.

polypoly represents a new and emerging solution category, the personal information management system, aka MyData Operator. These systems are looking to mainstream the personal data economy, which is an economy that promises to produce value for all while systematically ensuring commercially and socially responsible data flows throughout society.

I had the fortunate opportunity to speak with Jessica Dittmar, CMO, at polypoly while researching the soon-to-be-released MEF Personal Data and Identity Market Assessment Report. You can watch our discussion (59:40) on YouTube.

We talked about the current and future state of the personal data and identity marketplace. For some, Jessica’s and polypoly’s insights might sound revolutionary. These ideas are revolutionary, but this is a revolution that is a long time coming. In the months and years to come, we will most certainly see a fundamental shift in how everyone (people, governments, and businesses) treat personal data and interact with each other. These shifts will fundamentally influence business models, regulatory compliance, enterprise operations, and organizational tech stacks, just to name a few areas. I’ve derived a simple message from our conversation: “Get ready!”

Setting the stage: the current state of the personal data economy

For Jessica, the current personal data and identity economy needs to change. Why? Jessica puts forth several reasons:

  • Today’s internet is difficult for the average individual to navigate while retaining any semblance of privacy or control over their data; there is too much for people to technically and commercially know in order to manage their data effectively. The lack of control over one’s data exposes them to harm and lost opportunities.
  • Existing people-centric regulations (e.g., GDPR and CCPA), while beneficial, put too large of an operational burden on enterprises of every size.
  • Existing big tech practices are impacting the competitiveness of nations and stifling competition, as they are siphoning off and monopolizing the 21st century’s most valuable asset—data—which is the fuel that makes business flow.
  • For enterprises to generate insights from data, they currently centralize the data. In other words, they bring data to the algorithm to create insight. This centralization is inefficient and puts both the data subjects and organizations at risk, Jessica remarks. Jessica shared insights from Veritas about how only 15 percent of an enterprise’s data is business-critical, while 85 percent is either stale or provides no value at all. This costs businesses in aggregate billions due to unnecessary storage and cybercrime risk.

Jessica is not alone in pointing out these issues and stating there needs to change. I have heard and seen similar sentiments coming from other thought-leaders from around the globe not just recently, but over the last couple of decades (actually longer). Probably one of the most prominent of these thought-leaders is Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the Web, who has made it clear that we’ve lost control of our data and that this is a bad thing.

A proposed solution: personal information management systems powered by decentralized data networks

polypoly’s answer to the challenges above is clear; we need to change our approach to personal data management. polypoly’s proposal is that we change the direction of data flows between people and society (private and public institutions) and move from centralized data models to decentralized insights models.

“We really have to change fundamentally–how we work with data, how we economize data, how we earn money with data, how we treat data. But if we want to change this, then we have to have a look on all the three players on the market. It doesn’t work when we just have a solution for one player.” – Jessica Dittmer, CMO, PolyPoly 2021.3

What this will take

polypoly’s suggested solution for accomplishing this shift is actually quite elegant and possible with today’s existing technology and commercial and legal structures.

The key to making this shift happen is to systematize trust and not let the data leave control of the individual. When businesses need information from the individual, Jessica believes the future lies in two scenarios. In one, the business programmatically reaches out to the individual and asks for it, or the other, where individual, under established trust patterns and in the right context, has their apps (see below) share key insights dynamically with approved organizations.

Jessica’s prescription to today’s data exchange problem is:

  1. Leave the data where they are, on the individual’s devices managed by a secure application, aka a personal information management system (PIMIS)
  2. Stop sharing data
  3. Start sharing algorithms

Here is a simple example. Let’s say a restaurant wants to know if I’m over 21 or not, or a business wants to know my Covid-19 vaccination status. Today, in the first case, I would show a driver’s license, and in the second case they’d need to see my vaccine card. Both methods of proof have too much personal information that is irrelevant to the situation, e.g., full name, full birthdate, addresses, etc. The business doesn’t need all of this information; they just need the “yes” or “no” answer to their question.

Leveraging solutions like polypoly’s, which are based on new industry self-sovereign identity standards (aka authentic data standards), would make it possible for the business to receive only the information relevant to their need. The business’s systems would send their inquiry to the individual, triggered by a QR code scan via the app or via an API call to the app, and the individual’s application would return the answer(i.e., yes or no) along with a cryptographic public key that the business’ systems can use to validate the response. This entire process would take milliseconds at most. The business gets their answer, and the individual is served without compromising the individual’s privacy and the business collecting unnecessary data.

A personal information management solution (PIMS), aka a personal data store, which is a system that gives people control over their personal information. There are many flavors of PIMS being developed today (more on this in future articles, for now see MyData Operators).For Jessica and polypoly, as well as the industry as a whole, there are several pieces that are needed to accomplish the vision above. These include:

  • A personal data cooperative, a new commercial entity, owned by its members (aka the data subjects), that oversees the PIMS technology stack and the trust patterns for personal data management and exchange.
  • Individual adoption, people adopting and using a PIMS and engaging in the new corresponding business models.
  • Organization adoption, organizations (private and public initiations alike) adopting and using a PIMS and engaging in the new corresponding business models.
  • Data Exchange APIs, APIs that empower people to import their data from organizations and enterprises and securely store this data in their PIMS.
  • Insights Algorithms, algorithms that can be sent to the PIMS so the data can be interrogated locally on the individual’s device.
  • New Business Model, stop monetizing data and start monetizing unused connected device processing power. Jessica notes how only 5% of people’s smartphone processing power is efficiently used, and with this new decimalized insights model, people can monetize this incredibly valuable and unused resource.

polypoly has put every one of these elements in place, as have a host of other players. polypoly has released a decentralized PIMS, the polyPod, which resides on a connected device (e.g. smartphone, tablet, game terminal, car, etc.) to empower individuals to securely collect and manage their personal data. polypoly has open-sourced the technology to stimulate growth and ensure transparency. It launched and is supporting a personal data cooperative. It is stimulating individual and organization adoption by launching a number of programs.

It is providing polypot to European citizens, including a service they can use to obtain a record of all the data that enterprises, like Facebook, have on them. It is providing tools, like a data explorer, to help people better understand their data. It is making the polyPod available to enterprises that want cleaner data directly from the individual, via the polyPod. And, it is continuing to develop APIs for data and algorithm exchange and is working with industry leaders, like Mercedes Benz, to prove out new business models.

Sabine Scheunert, CDO Mercedes Benz, remarks “A decentralised data economy offers the customer full, autonomous transparency, and precisely this transparency is one of the principles that we at Mercedes-Benz have anchored in our data strategy.”

Get ready

My interview with Jessica is a small peek into this new and emerging personal data economy. Jessica admits we are still in the early days and that it will take time for all these pieces to mature, but mature it will. I encourage you to listen to the complete interview.

Michael Becker

Founder, CEO, Identity Praxis


Join the MEF Personal Data & Identity working group

The MEF Personal Data & Identity working group is undertaking a PD&I market assessment effort.

Please reach out to Michael Becker if you have insights (consumer insight, operational insight, solutions and technical insight, use case, recommended organization and leaders) that you think can help the MEF and its members make an impact.