Ibm and google take personal data into uncharted territory

The latest information services will see a reappraisal of the role of personal data in marketing and customer relationship management

How cool is this? A joint initiative between IBM and Google will see the development of a real-time, remote health monitoring service that will allow one person, such as a doctor or a relative, to keep tabs on another person’s vital signs (blood pressure, blood glucose levels, heart rate).

Under the new service, simple monitoring devices are linked to a computer and streamed data directly into Google Health’s personal health record management system, a place in “the clouds” where individuals can store and manage all their health information in one place. So, for example, a person with a heart condition can be monitored by his doctor while on a business trip on the other side of the world. Or a young mother busy with work, kids and so on can receive daily health updates from an aging parent who lives alone.

Initiatives such as this could help make the dream of a more personalised, convenient health system a reality. But they are not confined to health.

AlertMe is a new Cambridge-based company that helps homeowners use the internet to manage their homes better. Its remote security service keeps an eye on what’s happening in every room of the house while you are away. Its new energy monitoring and management system also claims it can reduce household energy bills (and carbon emissions) by up to 25%.

Energy management service

The service uses proprietary “smart plugs” to cut the power to appliances when they are not in use, plus an energy management and monitoring service that allows you to turn heating on and off or up and down remotely and automatically. For example, it allows you to text your home to turn the heating on an hour before you get home, or it senses that everyone in the house has gone to bed and therefore turns the heating down. A “smart meter” also helps householders track their energy use in real time and to receive alerts if they are exceeding their expected energy budget.

There are two things to note about such new information-based services. First, via clever ways of using information they are opening up huge opportunities for innovation. Marketers’ training and mindset draws them towards certain types of information – media content (news, entertainment), advertising messages that can be delivered with this content and, more recently, peer-to-peer information sharing that may help or hinder the delivery of advertising messages.

But the technologies that are revolutionising these industries are also revolutionising other ways of using information, including the monitoring, organising (making and carrying out arrangements), administering, researching, trend analysis, planning and decision-making we all need to do to manage our lives better.

The IBM/Google Health initiative revolves around monitoring. So does AlertMe, with a bit of analysis (energy consumption trends) and organisation thrown in. Monitoring and related alerts are also revolutionising air, road and public transport. Increasingly, we take the transport infrastructure itself as a given. The issue is how well can we use this infrastructure? And that depends on us having real-time information about problems as and when they arise.

Another arena with huge potential is using information to help people organise complex processes. The home moving service MoveMe, for example, gives its users free “best practice” advice and reminders about which steps they need to take and by when. In doing so, it tackles a dimension of value that none of the specialist home moving service providers (solicitors, estate agents, mortgage providers, home removal companies etc) really address. In fact, arguably, it homes in on the real consumer pain point when it comes to moving home – the sheer hassle of having to think about and organise it all, with that constant nagging fear that you might have forgotten something.

Likewise, Confetti.co.uk offers wedding planning tools including web pages, to-do lists, a wedding guest list and address book, a budget planner, a table planner and a supplier directory to help the bride and groom ensure everything goes smoothly. It also customises these planning tools depending on what your role at the wedding is – bridesmaid, parent, best man etc.

Similar opportunities for trend analysis, alerts and planning tools are also beginning to be explored in financial services. Look at the proliferation of services that text you if you are in danger of going overdrawn on your current account, when an expected payment arrives, what your current balance is, etc. They could be the (very small) beginnings of a much bigger revolution in financial services – one that takes us beyond the supply of many separate and isolated products such as loans, current accounts or mortgages to the much richer (and more complex) world of “better, more efficient financial management”.

The second characteristic of information-rich, personalised services is that they portend a more general shake-up in the rules, expectations and practices of personal data management. With their health monitoring service, IBM and Google are treading where angels fear. They are dealing with extremely sensitive information. Who should have access to it, on what terms and conditions, with what safeguards? Should it be restricted to qualified professionals, or should it include relatives? If so, does that mean all relatives? What about insurance companies?Some marketing circles (such as the list broking industry), regard personal data in a similar fashion to the way fishermen regard fish in the sea – if you can catch it, it’s yours to do with as you please (so long as you keep within the law). But such attitudes and practices are the kiss of death to these new types of information service whose stock in trade is intimate, private data.

Today, the most sophisticated database marketing companies tend to assume two things – that data collection and management is something that they, not their customers, do, and that all we need to do to achieve legitimacy in the eyes of the customer are gain permission to gather the data and demonstrate transparency as to how we use it.

Health records

These are good principles, but in the emerging era they are not enough. To address the sensitivities of personal health records, for example, Google offers three more things. First, it promises to create a privacy shield so that, even as it collects and stores the data/ “You are the only user who can view and edit your information.” Second, it gives the user control: “You control who can access your personal health information… If you choose to, you can share your information with others.” Third, the core of the service lies in the fact that the information that’s being gathered and shared is used to add value not to a vendor (ie to achieve sales targets), but to the individual. It treats personal information as a personal, not a corporate, asset. Value to vendors only emerges as a byproduct of these first three principles.

So keep an eye out on new information services, for two reasons. First, they could help you revolutionise what value looks like in your industry. Second, as they mature they’re almost certain to trigger a much broader, root-and-branch reappraisal of the role of personal data in marketing and customer relationship management. 

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