Consumers don’t know much about what personal data is being collected. It’s not until they start asking questions that the bottom part of the “data iceberg” becomes apparent, according to Tuomas Syrjänen, CEO of Futurice.

“We see very little of what kind of data companies are collecting about us or how they are using it,” Syrjänen told the recent IIeX conference in Amsterdam. “And we see even less who they are providing the data to.” He cited the recent case of a Guardian journalist who asked the dating app Tinder what information it held on her and got back 800 pages, including Facebook likes, location data – “much broader data than she initially thought”. 

 Consumers are currently in no position to have real control of their data and take advantage of it, he said, and the initial response to discovering the hidden part of the data iceberg is panic. Businesses can experience a similar emotion when faced with privacy regulations.  

“How can businesses use more and more data and build trust with consumers at the same time?” he asked. “There’s a huge opportunity and that comes from redefining the customer relationship and making customers and consumers [take] a more active role.” The idea of moving from being merely a passive consumer to an active participant is already playing out in numerous ways, he pointed out, whether that’s logistic firm DHL using customers for last-mile delivery or UK mobile network giffgaff, which is run by its members.

There are two ways to look at this, Syrjänen suggested. “One is how do we use this trend to redefine and reshape our existing business.” The other? “How do we build new businesses.”

 He outlined five possibilities across both these scenarios:

  1. Advertising and marketing, he argued, is based on making big claims for a product or service and which consumers can have trouble validating. That changes when they have their real-world usage data to deconstruct those claims. “It will create completely new market dynamics” and could spell an end to traditional marketing approaches. “Already we see this happening ... people can use simple utilities’ information to choose the best plan for them. And when we have much more fine-grained data we can apply the same to much more complex purchase processes.”

  2. Data changes consumer engagement levels as businesses can cross-reference personal data to make more holistic recommendations and create better products and services.

  3. Personal data could be used in transactions. People can already choose to pay for airline tickets with a combination of money and loyalty points – “why can’t we have some products where we choose how much we pay with money and how much with our own personal data?” Google, for example, is using focus groups where they offer more rewards to people who surrender more information. Where brands have no other source of access to data they could simply buy it direct from consumers, he said.

  4. Data banks. Digital challengers are disrupting traditional banking, but they could build new businesses by becoming “data banks”. Their current business model is based around taking consumers’ money, storing it securely, monetising it and paying interest as well as offering financial advice. “Why can’t the same happen with personal data?” Syrjänen asked.

  5. Companies can redefine themselves as advisers. Over the past ten years there’s been a “huge transition” from business as (physical) producer to business as (digital) connector with the growth of brands like Uber and Airbnb. “Instead of producing or connecting we could define ourselves as data-driven advising businesses – helping consumers make the best possible decisions from their point of view.”

Digital disruption means there are now hundreds of options in some categories; “consumers are drowning in all sorts of opportunities and offerings and who makes sense of them all? I believe there is going to be a huge opportunity for this kind of data-driven, massively scaled advisory business logic in the future.”

A big challenge, however, will be to shift from the current business model around data where, if the service is free, the consumer is the product.  GDPR has the potential to help change that mindset.