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Exclusive Interview: Meeco’s Katryna Dow on Personal Data as a Form of Currency

Your personal data is valuable. Very valuable. Many companies like Google (GOOG) and Facebook (FB) count on the ability to target advertising to help them rake in billions in ad revenues.

Your personal data is valuable. Very valuable. Many companies like Google (GOOG) and Facebook (FB) count on the ability to target advertising to help them rake in billions in ad revenues. That’s why any time you use the internet, your browser is built to capture personal information in the form of “cookies” and record it.

But all of this has raised serious questions about the nature of privacy in the internet age. If the entire nation can erupt in outrage at Edward Snowden’s revelation that the government was collecting data about Americans, why are we so willing to tacitly accept even more invasiveness from private companies for services we opt to use? And, perhaps more importantly, why should other people be the ones to profit from our data?

These questions are what’s behind the development of Meeco, a new service platform designed to control the flow of personal information while using the internet. Meeco users can control which companies and services can see their data, potentially paving the way to a future where consumers can make decisions about selling access to their data to and taking any profits for themselves. spoke with Katryna Dow, Meeco’s founder and CEO, to talk about what her company does, why it’s so important, and what the future holds for Meeco.

EQ: Can you start off by telling us about and the features that empower people to take control of their personal online data?

Dow: Funnily, Meeco was actually inspired by a short scene from the Tom Cruise film Minority Report.It was the idea that an innocent man running through the mall sometime in the future, where everything he did was being digitally tracked–location, preferences, etc.—and he was receiving tailored content from that information. Ten years ago that seemed like science fiction, but if we fast forward to where we are now, we see that many of those things are ordinarily achievable. They're happening every day. I could see that we were moving more and more towards a socially connected world, especially with the rise of social networks.

So my hypothesis a decade ago was that as we were becoming more social and sharing more information, it would make sense that the cycle would self-correct at some point, and we would move to where data becomes valuable, and privacy becomes the countertrend. Then about three years ago I formed a think tank just to look at the commercialization of data. The World Economic Forum started publishing papers on data as an alternate form of currency, and there was a growing trend towards large big data organizations starting to insure the value of the data as an asset class. So it occurred to me that if organizations were doing that, then it would make sense that we should be able to find ways for people to do that. That was the beginning of Meeco.

The key idea was being able to give individuals the same kind of power that organizations have: the ability to collect, aggregate, analyze and then ultimately exchange their data.

EQ: Consumers are becoming increasingly cognizant of the data that is being collected on them too.

Dow: Right. Over the last 18 months or so, the Snowden issue became an accelerator of sorts. The idea that governments were actually surveilling citizens—not to mention the political fallout associated with that–but it led to the realization of just how much information every single day is being tracked. So that helped people to understand that the information about themselves is not only really valuable, but that it is a trillion-plus dollar industry just in terms of the way that the brokers trade people's information on a daily basis. It’s quite a significant market. The problem is that the individuals that generate that commodity don’t enjoy any of the returns by the way that the market is currently set up.

EQ: The way this is done through Meeco is what you call boards and sub apps. I think there is about five right now. Can you briefly tell us a bit about each one and what they allow a user to do?

Dow: The four key ways that data is tracked at the moment are identity, browser history, brand preferences and intentions. Meeco provides simple to use dashboards; My Story, My Sites, My Intentions, and My Brands, which enable to you be in control.

Identity is the core information of your life: Who you're married to, where you live, what kind of car do you drive, etc. It’s anything around the identity space. The My Story board is your identity. It's a way to actually contextualize and create a unique story of your life by curating the information you record.

The second way is through the My Sites board, which allows you to manage your browser history. At least 80% to 90% of everything we do online is tracked, but this allows you to customize any online relationship you have. Each browser section is discrete so you're not tracked across your activity. When you launch a social app, you have the metadata, so even if you are using Facebook you retain more context. What that starts to do is build up a really rich history of your online activity and keep that for yourself. We already know that a lot of organizations are either trying to track or incentivise people to give that information up.

The third way is through managing which of your trusted brands of businesses or service providers can track you via the My Brands board. So these would be the companies you're happy to transact with on a regular basis. We use a simple rating system so you can categorize brands for your own insight. A lot of social apps focus on what you like, however what you don’t like is as valuable in the right context.

High value data is associated with your intentions; the products, services, advice or experiences you are actually in the market for. All that is comes together through the My Intentions board, which helps to use the data to make your life easier. One of the most valuable benefits of data is when it matches and enables you to accomplish your intentions. Doc Searls, a former Berkman Fellow at Harvard University, describes this empowerment shift in his book The Intention Economy; When Customers Take Charge.

EQ: There’s also the My Insights board, which serves as an analytics of sorts for the user. How valuable is this for users? Is it shared with anyone else?

Dow:Well, this is where it starts to really get interesting because we're able to aggregate and capture the information across all of those different activities. So the idea of that is you can actually data mine your own information over a period of time and then use that to be able to aggregate, analyze and input when you may want to exchange that. For instance, you could use that information to calculate your share of value on a transaction before you apply for a mortgage, or any number of things that we do on a daily basis where data is involved. We recently added a data scientist to the Meeco team. He is helping us embed machine learning, so that your activities start to teach you more and more about your value and the optimal time to exchange data.

EQ: So all these features are aimed to allow consumers to control their flow of information, and basically flipping the tables to allow people to track themselves and turn on the flow of information for the companies that they do like and block companies that they don’t like. That could potentially be very empowering for consumers and disruptive to what's going on right now. Is that the goal?

Dow: That’s spot on. The idea of Meeco was about completely flipping the model. We say this is two-fold because there's just so much cost and waste associated either in buying data and advertising through intermediaries. So by flipping the model, our aim is to make the individual the richest and most accurate source of that data and information, so ultimately it becomes more cost effective for the companies to come directly to the individual.

So not only is it more cost effective to do that, but it also makes it much easier for strategic marketing purposes. If the information is actually in context and it's also matched with preference, it's much more effective for an exchange directly between the consumer and the advertiser to happen than for the cost of trying to aggregate that information or mesh it up or buy it from various third-party sources.

Typically what happens now is that information is either identified or de-identified, and then it’s used to target. But it's generally the ad tech businesses that are using that information to try and anticipate what kind of transaction you might be interested in and then the cost of that data acquisition is actually something that is not flowing back towards the individual.

EQ: What direction do you see the Meecomerce and Meeconomy market moving toward as it evolves?

Dow: There's a few different directions, and I guess this next decade is going to reveal the way it will emerge. First of all, we already know that large organizations, financial institutions, and retailers are able to place a value on the data that they hold on their customer. We could possibly see that actually transferring back to individuals for them to be able to have some sense of the value of their own information.

The second is we're starting to see through the rise of cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin huge potential for disruption and innovation. More and more, it's becoming a legitimate, accepted form of value exchange and we're starting to see various forms of activities built out around the bitcoin protocol. There was a debate as to whether or not data will turn into some kind of self-issued currency, or whether it will have sort of a unified protocol. But while I don’t know exactly how it will manifest, I am confident that we'll start to see the exchange of data and insight as being an acceptable form of value exchange.

So it may take the form of a replacement of currency, or the form of loyalty. It may enable a greater collaboration or it may be part of what defines an emerging asset class. I think what’s interesting to watch with the whole cryptocurrency state right now is how that will start to be regulated or deregulated.

For example take a look at who are about to close their direct fund raising round. They have already raised millions which will enable them to build out next-generation distributed applications to codify, decentralize, secure and trade just about anything. We purchased Ether early in the raise so we are in a position when they launch to explore how we might create value for the Meeco community.

EQ: It's understandably a very fluid market right now given that it’s in the early stages, but how is Meeco currently positioned itself for the future during the current state of the market?

Dow: The easy ways right now is focusing on the trading of personal information. I think in the United States alone it’s a multi-trillion dollar asset class. I’ve just come from London and spent some time with Ctrl-Shift, a firm of analysts are working in this space, informing the markets, enterprise and and the UK government. They were asked to develop a white paper to look at what they call the value of the personal information economy. The research estimates the potential size of the market as GBP$16.5 billion or 1.2% of gross value added to the UK economy alone.

The interesting thing about that study is that the value is to be added to the economy. It’s not to be extracted out of current markets. So it’s actually an emerging market in its own right. That represents both the savings to institutions and organizations around the exchange of data, but more importantly, the creation of value for the data owners.

EQ: So is Meeco positioning itself as the platform in which the marketplace can facilitate the exchange and flow of information?

Dow: Yes, but the most important thing is that we won’t hold the data. So unlike single silo companies like Facebook, Twitter (TWTR) , LinkedIn (LNKD) , Google, and so on where they hold all the data and insight, Meeco advocates that save your information to a personal cloud and you would own and control. People are already used to this through services like iCloud or Google Drive, except that you don’t have control and can’t stop them being data-mined or used to sell you services. We’re in the process of partnering with emerging personal cloud providers right now, as well as exploring a range of ways you could back-up, control or have your data hosted on your behalf. Regardless of where you keep the data you would use Meeco as a means of being able to analyze your insights, and if there was any gain, that would flow through to you directly. We would see ourselves as an enablement point in that flow.

But we’re not tethered to that model. We're also looking at how quickly we can help users of Meeco understand their own behavior and whether or not that could equate to a digital form of currency in its own right. Our central mission right now is helping people as quickly as possible become the most valuable source of data and information about themselves. If we can help people achieve this, then they will be empowered to tip the market in their favor.

EQ: There are a lot of questions right now about cybersecurity and hacking of information. I know as you said you're partnering a lot of cloud companies that have their own security measures. But as the name and the brand that people will trust with their information, what kind of lengths has Meeco gone to in order to ensure that they're confident in using your service?

Dow: That’s a really important point. The information that we do store is encrypted. We're really transparent about where that data is stored and how it is stored. At the moment we’ve got partnerships in Australia with Amazon (AMZN) , partly because of their commitment to the privacy registration in Australia along with their security reputation. We’ve gone to great lengths to make sure that people's information is held in line with the privacy protocols. As soon as the protocols are in place to back-up or save the data to other services, you can decide where in the world you want your data to reside.

We have a really clear policy regarding the information that we hold and how it is managed. Right now, as an interim measure and as we help educate users, they'll see the value of that being distributed rather than held in one single silo. We are excited about what we are seeing in the personal data storage space, which I believe will open up new services which will value, insure and distribute the data on your behalf.

EQ: What is the Respect Network and how is that related to Meeco?

Dow: The Respect Network is an example of one of the emerging networks. Common protocols enable three very important layers. You have the technology, you have the legal and you have the business. First and foremost is a trust framework as to how information is exchanged. It’s the kind of protocol that people would adhere to in order to make a transaction transparent and based on trust. That’s backed by a legal framework and a transparent business model.

The importance of a network like Respect Network and why Meeco became a foundation partners, is because it is a global network. The cloud service providers in the network have agreed to the same technology protocols, whilst operating in multi-jurisdictions such as Australia, the U.S., U.K., Europe and Israel, which means that people can have protection not just in terms of that distributed network but also in accordance with the jurisdictions that they live in and the data laws that are applicable for where they reside.

It also means that there could be scale and interoperability. As an example, a common protocol would enable somebody to move their data from one of those cloud service providers to another. We all agreed to the same terms and conditions in terms of respecting the information.

Respect Network is a great example of a network that is designed for interoperability, peer-to-peer exchange, and to facilitate the exchange of information on what's under the business cloud, and a personal cloud without an intermediary in the middle. 

Meeco is working to ensure we can provide operability to the range of networks and peer-to-peer solutions emerging. We are not locked into one solution, in fact we see portability and choice as paramount for people using Meeco.

EQ: There are many aspects to this that impacts everybody. The whole Big Data storyline has been a huge issue and a lot of people are still trying to grasp what that really means. Data from a corporate standpoint and a marketing standpoint is an asset. It’s a currency that people trade and sell and the fact that you can put it back in the power of the person generating that information has a lot of potential to shift the balance.

Dow: One thing that we say is small data, big insight. Probably the most compelling state for people to start is when they realize that instead of focusing on big data, they should focus on all the small points of data in their life. If they're able to aggregate that around a central theme, like intent, which may be for an individual or a family, then it becomes really powerful.

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