The future of personal data sharing: Data wallets and empowered users

  • Data wallets allow individuals to securely manage, share, maintain personal data
  • Will lead to data ecosystems, and economy where personal data is willingly traded

The future of personal data sharing: Data wallets and empowered users

"I just can't stand that they are paid so much money, for being so crappy." Unapologetic, Professor Irene Ng (seated right, with her team) is talking about companies engaged in targeted online advertising – or as she might say it, with quotation marks around "targeted". She estimates that there is up to US$254 billion (RM1.17 trillion) of wasted advertising each year. "People who send email spam might as well say, we are paid so much money for being 97% wrong!"

It may seem like Irene has a beef against advertising professionals but her concern instead is in how to get people to be more comfortable in managing their data. That is the key common factor in both the targeted advertising and email marketing examples she sites. Specifically, she asks, how would one get people to consciously and willingly share their data? Right now the entire online world has been 'sharing' personal data via blindly accepting the terms of use, which individuals theoretically still have control over, but in reality once personal data is out of sight, it is out of mind (until something goes wrong like a data breach).

Irene is a professor at the University of Warwick, as well as a Turing Fellow (awarded to established scholars with proven research excellence in data science, artificial intelligence, or a related field). Before this, she founded the Empress Cruise Line, which she sold in 1996 to move into academia. She then conceived the Hub of All Things (HAT) as a response to the growing concerns over data privacy and control which started as a collaborative research effort by six UK universities in 2013, with the goal of creating a personal data platform that would allow users to own, store, and share their data securely. In 2015, the HAT Community Foundation (HCF), a non-profit organization, was established to oversee the HAT ecosystem and ensure its ethical development. The HCF acts as an impartial non-statutory regulator responsible for the “regulation of a digital exchange for the exchange of personal information for the public benefit”.

At its core, the mission is to empower individuals to take control of their digital selves online.

That is also Irene's mission, who, soon after HCF was launched, founded Dataswyft (previously known as Dataswift), a startup that builds on the work of HAT and specialises in self-sovereign data wallets. Data wallets are essentially tools that help individuals and businesses securely manage and share their data, while also allowing them to maintain privacy, as they want to. In the same way that money wallets store and give you control of your cash, data wallets allow you to have control of your personal data, including who you want to share your data with. 

The hope is that by simplifying the way people share data, these wallets can be used for various purposes, such as personalised recommendations or verifying important information.

For example, you might be visiting a pharmacy, and they might want to recommend supplements to you. However, what exactly they would offer is very dependent on the individual. If both the business and you understand how to use data wallets, then you can share certain health data about yourself with the pharmacy to help them winnow their suggestions (for example, biodata like your BMI or your latest blood pressure). The pharmacy may even offer to pay you for your personal data, which would now be possible because you personally control your own data and critically, will keep it updated.

A pilot of how Irene's data wallets will work is about to be launched in conjunction with the upcoming SejutaKG campaign to encourage a healthier lifestyle.  By incorporating data wallets within the SejutaKG app, users can securely store their personal data and activate Data Passes that match them with suitable offers from partners (which includes pharmacies). This results in a two-sided network of partners and consumers, promoting healthier lifestyles while allowing users to protect their personal information as they see fit. (A Data Pass is like a detailed label or summary for a piece of data. It tells you important things about the data, like where it came from and who checked it.)

[Ed note: Readers will soon be able to register for their data wallets on the SejutaKG website which is underdoing updates in preparation for the campaign launch.]

The benefit is that hopefully users that share enough of their personal data will see the benefit of very targeted promotions. "If you think about your health data wallet as a journey to better health, then the engagement rate with brands and businesses is great. Because now you recognise me (as a) person and you finally recognize my journey, (and) not just randomly shove all kinds of things at me," said Irene. Apart from biodata, there would naturally be other kinds of data that could be kept in the wallets, such as financial data or contact data. 

"All this talk about digital and tech is never about the digital. It's about real business, and real value," says Irene Ng.

The Hub of All Things

Irene envisions an evolution of data ecosystems, driven by the widespread adoption of data wallets. In this new paradigm, individuals will have greater control over their personal data, and businesses will benefit from better-targeted marketing and more efficient customer engagement strategies. Right now, personal data is kept by 3rd party companies, such as credit card companies or telcos, but how useful that data is can be in doubt, as the data could be out of date, or just flat out wrong, as the user has no direct access to update it. As a result, when these companies then share the data with other companies (e.g. for advertising), the relevance of what they produce can be questioned, leading to the hundreds of billions of wasted advertising alluded to earlier. As she puts it, "I created this technology for markets to function better."

Irene hopes that as data wallet adoption grows, users will be more inclined to share their data, knowing that they have control over how and with whom their information is being shared. In turn, businesses will have access to higher-quality, more accurate data, enabling them to make better-informed decisions and offer more relevant and personalised products and services to their customers.

Ultimately, it creates a supply that can fulfil the demand of data.  As Irene says, "We enable data to function, move and create markets and we give a lot of advice as to how to engage your customer for the journey of their wallet." Ultimately, companies will no longer look at data as something they've collected away from the customer, but as a way to directly offer something to them in a more meaningful way. 


Legacy processes, adoption, and trust

Despite the promising benefits of data wallets, there are several potential challenges in their implementation. First, integrating data wallets with existing systems may pose technical hurdles for businesses. Many companies use legacy systems, which might not be compatible with the latest data wallet technology or may require significant updates to support this new approach to data management.

"There's a lot of grief in these processes, because a lot of them are legacy processes," Irene acknowledges. "The thing is when people say digitalization, they still think about the old way of doing digitization, which is very expensive. Create a big system, rather than, hey, within one week, you can create a CRM system based inside a self-sovereign store. So they don't think of the leapfrog technologies." This would lead to something akin to a personalised customer relationship app directly under an individual's control, interfacing directly with their data.

User adoption and trust are also crucial factors for the success of data wallets. Part of the reason is because the owner of the private data has the final say in how the wallet is used. As a result, educating users about the benefits of data wallets and ensuring transparency in the data sharing process will be vital in building trust and driving adoption.

Ensuring data accuracy and consistency is another challenge that must be addressed. While the Dataswyft data wallet makes it easy to copy the data, it doesn't force existing database holders to make sure they have your most up to date data, potentially leading to ineffective marketing campaigns and poor customer experiences due to outdated or inaccurate information (for example your address, job, salary, health status and even hobby could have changed).

As Irene explains, "The wallet is a functionality that moves verified data. It cannot update the data." 

Lastly, addressing cross-border data interoperability is a key concern, especially as businesses expand their reach globally. "The ICC, the International Chamber of Commerce wants to solve the data interoperability problem, because trade documents are not moving. One bank will have a separate data set from another," says Irene. "They all have centralized systems that don't talk to each other."

And while giving every party a data wallet (can only happen if mandated by government) can help with this, there are other issues to consider. "You're talking about trade. Do you know how many don't really want to share information?" says Irene.


Digital is never about the digital

To encourage this, Irene has been busy establishing a Dataswyft network, including one in Malaysia, initially to support the SejutaKG campaign. This network serves as a decentralized data infrastructure that allows users to have complete control over their personal data while engaging with health merchants and service providers. 

"But what we need to be clear about is that we enable data to function, move and create markets. We advise you what the value of the data is. (And) we give a lot of advice on how to engage your customer for the journey of their wallet."

She gives an example of her conversations with banks. "If your customer churn is at 20% and you have 2 million customers, you're losing (about) US$20 million a year (with each of the 200,000 lost customers valued at US$100). How are you going to engage them? How can you become more relevant to them?" she asks. "I suggest you look at the data wallet and the data ecosystem."

"All this talk about digital and tech is never about the digital," she summarises. "It's about real business — and real value." And, to Irene, that starts with data that is accurate, updated and controlled by each user.


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