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What VPI is not

Posted on: Monday 13th of July 2009

One piece of push-back we’ve had on our report on Volunteered Personal Information is the question ‘what is the difference between the VPI you are talking about and lifestyle surveys?’

You may remember lifestyle surveys from their heyday about a decade ago. For the chance to win a prize, individuals were asked to fill in long and complicated forms divulging (it seemed) everything that’s possible to divulge about their lives. They were then rewarded for their pains with an avalanche of spam from the marketers who purchased this data.

Well, the emerging environment we talk about in this report is nearly the exact opposite of that. It’s a mutual not a unilateral process – in other words, the individual retains control over what information is shared with who, for what purposes. A key part of this is selectivel disclosure, with individuals volunteering some information to some organisations and not to others.

At the heart of the report lie three observations.

First, thanks to rapidly falling information processing costs a new ‘industry’ of personal information management services is emerging. Personal information management services do what they say on the tin, they help individuals manage information better in their own lives. This takes many forms – cool apps on an iphone, online social networking services, online search and so on.

These personal information services are not the same as the media which sells information to consumers, or advertising which sends messages to them. Also, it’s not the same as organisations’ customer data management activities either. In fact, at this point it has got nothing to do with organisations. It’s simply individuals using new technologies to gather, sift, store, manage, add to, delete, mash up, share etc the information they need to do the things they want to do. In other words, individuals use these services to further their own personal purposes, not anyone else’s.

The second observation is that there is a sub-set of personal information management that revolves around making and implementing decisions. This sub-set has two particularly interesting characteristics:
a)    in the process of making decisions, individuals naturally input lots of new information about who are they and what they want.
b)    organisations are particularly interested in this information, because of what it can tell them about the nature, shape, timing and location of demand.

The third observation is that individuals are not going to trust services working in this area unless they keep this highly personal information safe and secure, away from prying eyes. However, the other side to this coin is that individuals will also find it useful to share aspects of this information with selected organisations for many reasons – find out more, make arrangements, and so on. New technologies are now making such controlled, selective disclosures of information possible on a mass scale.

This is what is so important about this report: the counter-intuitive finding that empowering individuals to manage and control their own information will actually provide organisations with far greater value than if they try to keep control for themselves.

Alan Mitchell