This article is based on a talk given to the Future Media team at the BBC in May 2014.
In April this year, Charlotte Higgins wrote two essays for the Guardian about the past and future role of the BBC. Early in the first piece, she identified Google and Amazon as the BBC’s true competition.
I’ve spent years observing, spending money with and thinking about these new giants of the digital world. It’s my job to understand how their businesses are shaped and what drives them. And the single biggest thing that Google and Amazon have in common is that they are at heart both driven by data – personal data, which describe the behaviours of individuals.
The collection and management of personal data for commercial ends is the lifeblood of Google and Amazon, yet it plays little part in the BBC’s current working model. Surely this must change if the BBC is to flourish in the newly-digitised world of media?
If the service is free, you’re the product.
50 years ago this was true of ITV. Today it is true for Google’s YouTube and thousands of other digital services that compete to entertain or inform us, selling our ‘eyeballs’ to advertisers to commercialise the free service. No change there, just more competition.
The BBC’s audience is not the product.
The BBC is not a free service, nor (if we ignore BBC Worldwide) is it trying to – or allowed to – sell us things.
To quote Charlotte Higgins: “Unlike Google and Amazon… the BBC brings us ideas of which we have not yet dreamed, in a space free from the hectoring voices of those who would sell us goods”.
This is at the heart of why the BBC has a different relationship with its audience to other broadcast and media organisations.
Could the different motives and mission of the BBC translate into a new strategy for the collection and use of personal data?
Many pundits think we are at a tipping point in attitudes to personal data and how it is collected and used; Snowden’s NSA revelations being a significant catalyst for this change.
But there’s more to this than privacy and security issues. There’s a big fat business bottom-line story too. Your personal data has a value and, at the moment, most of that value is being harvested by those clever enough to work out how to ‘exploit’ and ‘monetize’ what they know (quite legitimately, in most cases) about you.
The ways in which the value of your own data can be reclaimed and controlled by you is the territory mapped out in Doc Searls’ book,The Intention Economy. Here in the UK, the government’s Midata initiative and organisations like Ctrl-Shift are pioneering the development of new structures for Personal Information Management Services (PIMS).
These are the ingredients for a BBC strategy for personal data. What could they cook up?
We think there should be a newly defined contract between the BBC and the individual. We call this the BBC’s ‘New Data Contract’. Here is a first shot at what it might look like;
The BBC’s New Data Contract
1. We will never sell to you.
2. We are 100% secure.
3. We will only use your data when you ask us to.
4. We understand the value of your data.
What could this contract translate into in practice?
Commercial organisations gather data largely through inference. They do not ask for information. This is because our willingness to give information to organisations that are trying to sell us services or products is limited. Why would you tell Google or Amazon more about yourself when doing so will lead to more, intrusive, advertising?
For the BBC, a paid-for service, the rules are different.
The BBC can ask; it has a relationship with its audience that will allow this. The personal data that results could be more valuable as a result.
Imagine a worried parent, whose son is falling behind with their maths at school. “Dear BBC, please help my son Luigi with his maths, he’s 10.” The amazing content and resources of the BBC could be edited – curated – to help Luigi’s studies, in a personal, relevant way.
Answering personal needs, directly expressed, is one way that the New Data Contract could work.
Another is in helping individuals manage their personal data and benefit from its value. This is Intention Economy territory; the BBC as a PIMS suppliers on a large scale.
In this model, there are several ground-shifting possibilities. One is that the licence fee could be replaced by revenues unlocked from the value in individuals’ data. Use the BBC’s personal data management service when you’re in the market for home insurance, and get £50 off the annual licence fee…
Whatever the BBC decides to do, the digitally-driven explosion in data (and data from objects with identities – the Internet of Things – is the next wave) will not be held back.
In order to flourish, the BBC needs a powerful strategy for personal data, and it is in a great, a unique position to create one.