Profiting from Publicly Available Data
Author: Mohana Ravindranath at The Washington Post
Posted: December 27, 2012

Read the original story in The Washington Post here.

Internet users likely aren’t surprised when advertisers analyze their personal information to target ads on e-mail or social media accounts.

But even seasoned netizens may be surprised to learn that a new crop of start-ups is harvesting publicly available information about them and selling to others. Some experts say the boomlet may also boost efforts by some companies to create ways for you to profit from your own data.

As analytics (or “big data”) become increasingly valuable to businesses, the data-gathering start-ups are using their own algorithms to identify particular individuals who might be attractive to clients, and selling databases of their names.

For example, Portland, Ore.-based start-up Tellagence, which launched a few months ago, identifies the most influential Twitter users on any particular topic, and sells lists of their Twitter handles to interested companies.

A sports shoe firm might be interested in a list of the most influential Twitter users who tweet about “the women’s running community,” said Tellagence co-founder and chief executive Matt Hixson. Users who simply tweet the phrase but don’t get responses or re-tweets aren’t considered influential – but those whose tweets initiate conversations with other users on the topic are. Tellagence clients can then initiate a Twitter interaction with someone likely to care about the topic – instead of spamming thousands of Twitter uninterested users with promotional messages – to spark a larger conversation about a product or service, Hixson said.

Tellagence considers 30 days of each users’ relationships and interactions so clients can tell, “when [a particular user] speaks about a subject, this many people will care,” Hixson said. Clients are charged a monthly subscription fee for lists of influential users.

Hixson said he doesn’t think users whose Twitter handles show up in these lists, and who are subsequently contacted by businesses, feel their privacy has been violated. “That’s what you’re signing up for” when you register on a publicly searchable platform like Twitter, he said.

He noted that users who are contacted by businesses aren’t obligated to advertise a product, or even engage in conversation. “You and I have choices when we decide whether we’re going to connect with someone,” on any social media platform, he said.

Gild, a San Francisco-based recruiting start-up, mines public programming sites for developers’ names, links them to their publicly available social media accounts, and ranks developers based on its own algorithm for ability. Gild then sells access to the database to companies looking to hire tech talent. Its clients — including Facebook and Amazon — pay up to $8,400 subscription fee for access to the database and are free to contact candidates independently.

Developers aren’t notified when they’re added to Gild’s database. Jade Dominguez, a developer active on GitHub who was subsequently hired by Gild, said he didn’t realize he could be contacted by recruiters until one reached out to him.

“But I think it is a little naive to say, ‘how dare you contact me’” if your contact information is publicly available on social platforms, Dominguez said. “That was my immediate reaction – not ‘how did he get my email?’, but ‘where did he get it?’,” he said.

Information and Privacy Commissioner for Ontario, Canada Ann Cavoukian said she expects to see more systems like Gild and Tellagence in the next few years because “online data is going to be approaching the level of currency.” But she also expects Internet users to start asking for compensation for the use of their publicly available information, from which other companies are profiting.

“Because it’s still early days, people haven’t gotten their minds around that ‘my information is out there and widely accessible [after] putting it on a public social network,’ ” she said.

Cavoukian coined the term “personal data ecosystem” to denote a scenario in which companies are “harnessing the power of information and marketing it to companies” but individuals are being paid for the use of their information, even if it was publicly obtained— perhaps with money or coupons. “You get a win-win paradigm,” she said.

Another set of companies are working to help Cavoukian’s ecosystem approach reality — among them, she said, are, a Redwood City, Calif.-based site allowing subscribers to survey, block and manage publicly available online content about themselves, and Personal, a D.C.-based start-up helping users store and share personal information online. These sites, she said, “are slowly building up the infrastructure to make it viable for individuals to have some control over how their information is used,” she said.