Category: Horizontal ideas (page 1 of 15)

Toward e-commerce 2.0

Phil Windley explains e-commerce 1.0  in a single slide that says this:

One reason this happened is that client-server, aka calf-cow  (illustrated in Thinking outside the browser) has been the default format for all relationships on the Web, and cookies are required to maintain those relationships.  The result is a highly lopsided power asymmetry in which the calves have no more power than the cows give them. As a result,

  1. The calves have no easy way even to find  (much less to understand or create) the cookies in their browsers’ jars.
  2. The calves have no identity of their own, but instead have as many different identities as there are websites that know (via cookies) their visiting browsers. This gives them no independence, much less a place to stand like Archimedes, with a lever on the world. The browser may be a great tool, but it’s neither that place to stand, nor a sufficient lever. (Yes, it should have been, and maybe still could be; but meanwhile, it isn’t.)
  3. All the “agreements” the calves have with the websites’ cows leave no readable record on the calves’ side. This severely limits their capacity for dispute, which is required for a true relationship.
  4. There exists no independent way the calves to signal their intentions—such as interests in purchase, conditions for engagement, or the need to be left alone (which is how Brandeis and Warren define privacy).

In other words, the best we can do in e-commerce 1.0 is what the calf-cow system provides: ways for calves to depend utterly on means the cows provide. And some of those cows are mighty huge.

Nearly all of signaling between demand and supply remains trapped inside these silos and walled gardens. We search inside their systems, we are notified of product and service availability inside their systems, we make agreements inside their systems (to terms and conditions they provide and require), or privacy is dependent on their systems, and product and service delivery is handled either inside their systems or through allied and dependent systems.

Credit where due: an enormous amount of good has come out of these systems. But a far larger amount of good is MLOTT—money left on the table—because there is a boundless sum and variety of demand and supply that still cannot easily signal their interest, intentions of presence to each other in the digital world.

Putting that money on the table is our job in e-commerce 2.0.

So here is a challenge: tell us how we can do that without using browsers.

Some of us here do have ideas. But we’d like to hear from you first.


Cross-posted at the ProjectVRM blog, here.

Is being less tasty vegetables our best strategy?

We are now being farmed by business. The pretense of the “customer is king” is now more like “the customer is a vegetable” — Adrian Gropper

That’s a vivid way to put the problem.

There are many approaches to solutions as well. One is suggested today in the latest by @_KarenHao in MIT Technology Review, titled

How to poison the data that Big Tech uses to surveil you:
Algorithms are meaningless without good data. The public can exploit that to demand change.

An  excerpt:

In a new paper being presented at the Association for Computing Machinery’s Fairness, Accountability, and Transparency conference next week, researchers including PhD students Nicholas Vincent and Hanlin Li propose three ways the public can exploit this to their advantage:
Data strikes, inspired by the idea of labor strikes, which involve withholding or deleting your data so a tech firm cannot use it—leaving a platform or installing privacy tools, for instance.
Data poisoning, which involves contributing meaningless or harmful data. AdNauseam, for example, is a browser extension that clicks on every single ad served to you, thus confusing Google’s ad-targeting algorithms.
Conscious data contribution, which involves giving meaningful data to the competitor of a platform you want to protest, such as by uploading your Facebook photos to Tumblr instead.
People already use many of these tactics to protect their own privacy. If you’ve ever used an ad blocker or another browser extension that modifies your search results to exclude certain websites, you’ve engaged in data striking and reclaimed some agency over the use of your data. But as Hill found, sporadic individual actions like these don’t do much to get tech giants to change their behaviors.
What if millions of people were to coordinate to poison a tech giant’s data well, though? That might just give them some leverage to assert their demands.

The sourced paper* is titled Data Leverage: A Framework for Empowering the Public in its Relationship with Technology Companies, and concludes,

In this paper, we presented a framework for using “data leverage” to give the public more influence over technology company behavior. Drawing on a variety of research areas, we described and assessed the “data levers” available to the public. We highlighted key areas where researchers and policymakers can amplify data leverage and work to ensure data leverage distributes power more broadly than is the case in the status quo.

I am all for screwing with overlords, and the authors suggest some fun approaches. Hell, we should all be doing whatever it takes, lawfully (and there is a lot of easement around that) to stop rampant violation of our privacy—and not just by technology companies. The customers of those companies, which include every website that puts up a cookie notice that nudges visitors into agreeing to be tracked all over the Web (in observance of the letter of the GDPR, while screwing its spirit), are also deserving of corrective measures. Same goes for governments who harvest private data themselves, or gather it from others without our knowledge or permission.

My problem with the framing of the paper and the story is that both start with the assumption that we are all so weak and disadvantaged that our only choices are: 1) to screw with the status quo to reduce its harms; and 2) to seek relief from policymakers.  While those choices are good, they are hardly the only ones.

Some context: wanton privacy violations in our digital world has only been going on for a little more than a decade, and that world is itself barely more than  a couple dozen years old (dating from the appearance of e-commerce in 1995). We will also remain digital as well as physical beings for the next few decades or centuries.

So we need more than these kinds of prescriptive solutions. For example, real privacy tech of our own, that starts with giving us the digital versions of the privacy protections we have enjoyed in the physical world for millennia: clothing, shelter, doors with locks, and windows with curtains or shutters.

We have been on that case with ProjectVRM since 2006, and there are many developments in progress. Some even comport with our Privacy Manifesto (a work in progress that welcomes improvement).

As we work on those, and think about throwing spanners into the works of overlords, it may also help to bear in mind one of Craig Burton‘s aphorisms: “Resistance creates existence.” What he means is that you can give strength to an opponent by fighting it directly. He applied that advice in the ’80s at Novell by embracing 3Com, Microsoft and other market opponents, inventing approaches that marginalized or obsolesced their businesses.

I doubt that will happen in this case. Resisting privacy violations has already had lots of positive results. But we do have a looong way to go.

Personally, I welcome throwing a Theia.


* The full list of authors is Nicholas Vincent, Hanlin Li (@hanlinliii), Nicole Tilly and Brent Hecht (@bhecht) of Northwestern University, and Stevie Chancellor (@snchencellor) of the University of Minnesota,

Markets as conversations with robots

From the Google AI blogTowards a Conversational Agent that Can Chat About…Anything:

In “Towards a Human-like Open-Domain Chatbot”, we present Meena, a 2.6 billion parameter end-to-end trained neural conversational model. We show that Meena can conduct conversations that are more sensible and specific than existing state-of-the-art chatbots. Such improvements are reflected through a new human evaluation metric that we propose for open-domain chatbots, called Sensibleness and Specificity Average (SSA), which captures basic, but important attributes for human conversation. Remarkably, we demonstrate that perplexity, an automatic metric that is readily available to any neural conversational models, highly correlates with SSA.

A chat between Meena (left) and a person (right).

Meena
Meena is an end-to-end, neural conversational model that learns to respond sensibly to a given conversational context. The training objective is to minimize perplexity, the uncertainty of predicting the next token (in this case, the next word in a conversation). At its heart lies the Evolved Transformer seq2seq architecture, a Transformer architecture discovered by evolutionary neural architecture search to improve perplexity.
 
Concretely, Meena has a single Evolved Transformer encoder block and 13 Evolved Transformer decoder blocks as illustrated below. The encoder is responsible for processing the conversation context to help Meena understand what has already been said in the conversation. The decoder then uses that information to formulate an actual response. Through tuning the hyper-parameters, we discovered that a more powerful decoder was the key to higher conversational quality.
So how about turning this around?

What if Google sold or gave a Meena model to people—a model Google wouldn’t be able to spy on—so people could use it to chat sensibly with robots or people at companies?

Possible?

If, in the future (which is now—it’s freaking 2020 already), people will have robots of their own, why not one for dealing with companies, which themselves are turning their sales and customer service systems over to robots anyway?

We’re not data. We’re digital. Let’s research that.

The University of Chicago Press’  summary  of How We Became Our Data says author Colin Koopman

excavates early moments of our rapidly accelerating data-tracking technologies and their consequences for how we think of and express our selfhood today. Koopman explores the emergence of mass-scale record keeping systems like birth certificates and social security numbers, as well as new data techniques for categorizing personality traits, measuring intelligence, and even racializing subjects. This all culminates in what Koopman calls the “informational person” and the “informational power” we are now subject to. The recent explosion of digital technologies that are turning us into a series of algorithmic data points is shown to have a deeper and more turbulent past than we commonly think.

Got that? Good.

Now go over to the book’s Amazon page, do the “look inside” thing and then go to the chapter titled “Redesign: Data’s Turbulent Pasts and Future Paths” (p. 173) and read forward through the next two pages (which is all it allows). In that chapter, Koopman begins to develop “the argument that information politics is separate from communicative politics.” My point with this is that politics are his frames (or what he calls “embankments”) in both cases.

Now take three minutes for A Smart Home Neighborhood: Residents Find It Enjoyably Convenient Or A Bit Creepy, which ran on NPR one recent morning. It’s about a neighborhood of Amazon “smart homes” in a Seattle suburb. Both the homes and the neighborhood are thick with convenience, absent of privacy, and reliant on surveillance—both by Amazon and by smart homes’ residents.  In the segment, a guy with the investment arm of the National Association of Realtors says, “There’s a new narrative when it comes to what a home means.” The reporter enlarges on this: “It means a personalized environment where technology responds to your every need. Maybe it means giving up some privacy. These families are trying out that compromise.” In one case the teenage daughter relies on Amazon as her “butler,” while her mother walks home on the side of the street without Amazon doorbells, which have cameras and microphones, so she can escape near-ubiquitous surveillance in her smart ‘hood.

Lets visit three additional pieces. (And stay with me. There’s a call to action here, and I’m making a case for it.)

First, About face, a blog post of mine that visits the issue of facial recognition by computers. Like the smart home, facial recognition is a technology that is useful both for powerful forces outside of ourselves—and for ourselves. (As, for example, in the Amazon smart home.) To limit the former (surveillance by companies), it typically seems we need to rely on what academics and bureaucrats blandly call policy (meaning public policy: principally lawmaking and regulation).

As this case goes, the only way to halt or slow surveillance of individuals  by companies is to rely on governments that are also incentivized (to speed up passport lines, solve crimes, fight terrorism, protect children, etc.)  to know as completely as possible what makes each of us unique human beings: our faces, our fingerprints, our voices, the veins in our hands, the irises of our eyes. It’s hard to find a bigger hairball of conflicting interests and surely awful outcomes.

Second, What does the Internet make of us, where I conclude with this:

My wife likens the experience of being “on” the Internet to one of weightlessness. Because the Internet is not a thing, and has no gravity. There’s no “there” there. In adjusting to this, our species has around two decades of experience so far, and only about one decade of doing it on smartphones, most of which we will have replaced two years from now. (Some because the new ones will do 5G, which looks to be yet another way we’ll be captured by phone companies that never liked or understood the Internet in the first place.)

But meanwhile we are not the same. We are digital beings now, and we are being made by digital technology and the Internet. No less human, but a lot more connected to each other—and to things that not only augment and expand our capacities in the world, but replace and undermine them as well, in ways we are only beginning to learn.

Third, Mark Stahlman’s The End of Memes or McLuhan 101, in which he suggests figure/ground and formal cause as bigger and deeper ways to frame what’s going on here.  As Mark sees it (via those two frames), the Big Issues we tend to focus on—data, surveillance, politics, memes, stories—are figures on a ground that formally causes all of their forms. (The form in formal cause is the verb to form.) And that ground is digital technology itself. Without digital tech, we would have little or none of the issues so vexing us today.

The powers of digital tech are like those of speech, tool-making, writing, printing, rail transport, mass production, electricity, railroads, automobiles, radio and television. As Marshall McLuhan put it (in The Medium is the Massage), each of new technology is a cause that “works us over completely” while it’s busy forming and re-forming us and our world.

McLuhan also teaches that each new technology retrieves what remains useful about the technologies it obsolesces. Thus writing retrieved speech, printing retrieved writing, radio retrieved both, and TV retrieved radio. Each new form was again a formal cause of the good and bad stuff that worked over people and their changed worlds. (In modern tech parlance, we’d call the actions of formal cause “disruptive.”)

Digital tech, however, is less disruptive and world-changing than it is world-making. In other words, it is about as massively formal (as in formative) as tech can get. And it’s as hard to make sense of this virtual world than it is to sense roundness in the flat horizons of our physical one. It’s also too easy to fall for the misdirections inherent in all effects of formal causes. For example, it’s much easier to talk about Trump than about what made him possible. Think about it: absent of digital tech, would we have had Trump? Or even Obama? McLuhan’s  blunt perspective may help. “People,” he said, “do not want to know why radio caused Hitler and Gandhi alike.”

So here’s where I am now on all this:

  1. We have not become data. We have become digital, while remaining no less physical. And we can’t understand what that means if we focus only on data. Data is more effect than cause.
  2. Politics in digital conditions is almost pure effect, and those effects misdirect our attention away from digital as a formal cause. To be fair, it is as hard for us to get distance on digital as it is for a fish to get distance on water. (David Foster Wallace to the Kenyon College graduating class of 2005: Greetings parents and congratulations to Kenyon’s graduating class of 2005. There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?”)
  3. Looking to policy for cures to digital ills is both unavoidable and sure to produce unintended consequences. For an example of both, look no farther than the GDPR.  In effect (so far), it has demoted human beings to mere “data subjects,” located nearly all agency with “data controllers” and “data processors,” has done little to thwart unwelcome surveillance, and has caused boundlessly numerous, insincere and misleading “cookie notices”—almost all of which are designed to obtain “consent” to what the regulation was meant to stop. In the process it has also called into being monstrous new legal and technical enterprises, both satisfying business market demand for ways to obey the letter of the GDPR while violating its spirit. (Note: there is still hope for applying  the the GDPR. But let’s get real: demand in the world of sites and services for violating the GDPR’s spirit, and for persisting in the practice of surveillance capitalism, far exceeds demand for compliance and true privacy-respecting behavior. Again, so far.)
  4. Power is moving to the edge. That’s us. Yes, there is massive concentration of power and money in the hands of giant companies on which we have become terribly dependent. But there are operative failure modes in all those companies, and digital tech remains ours no less than theirs.

I could make that list a lot longer, but that’s enough for my main purpose here, which is to raise the topic of research.

ProjectVRM was conceived in the first place as a development and research effort. As a Berkman Klein Center project, in fact, it has something of an obligation to either do research, or to participate in it.

We’ve encouraged development for thirteen years. Now some of that work is drifting over to the Me2B Alliance  which has good leadership, funding and participation. There is also good energy in the IEEE 7012 working group and Customer Commons, both of which owe much to ProjectVRM.

So perhaps now is a good time to start at least start talking about research. Two possible topics: facial recognition and smart homes. Anyone game?


What turns out to be a draft version of this post ran on the ProjectVRM list. If you’d like to help, please subscribe and join in on that link. Thanks.

Personal scale

Way back in 1995, when our family was still new to the Web, my wife asked a question that is one of the big reasons I started ProjectVRM: Why can’t I take my own shopping cart from one site to another?

The bad but true answer is that every site wants you to use their shopping cart. The good but not-yet-true answer is that nobody has invented it yet. By that I mean: not  a truly personal one, based on open standards that make it possible for lots of developers to compete at making the best personal shopping cart for you.

Think about what you might be able to do with a PSC (Personal Shopping Cart) online that you can’t do with a physical one offline:

  • Take it from store to store, just as you do with your browser. This should go without saying, but it’s still worth repeating, because it would be way cool.
  • Have a list of everything parked already in your carts within each store.
  • Know what prices have changed, or are about to change, for the products in your carts in each store.
  • Notify every retailer you trust that you intend to buy X, Y or Z, with restrictions (meaning your terms and conditions) on the use of that information, and in a way that will let you know if those restrictions are violated. This is called intentcasting, and there are a pile of companies already in that business.
  • Have a way to change your name and other contact information, for all the stores you deal with, in one move.
  • Control your subscriptions to each store’s emailings and promotional materials.
  • Have your  own way to express genuine loyalty , rather than suffering with as many coercive and goofy “loyalty programs” as there are companies
  • Have a standard way to share your experiences with the companies that make and sell the products you’ve bought, and to suggest improvements—and for those companies to share back updates and improvements you should know about.
  • Have wallets of your own, rather than only those provided by platforms.
  • Connect to your collection of receipts, instruction manuals and other relevant information for all the stuff you’ve already bought or currently rent. (Note that this collection is for the Internet of your things—one you control for yourself, and is not a set of suction cups on corporate tentacles.)
  • Your own standard way to call for service or support, for stuff you’ve bought or rented, rather than suffering with as many different ways to do that as there are companies you’ve engaged

All of these things are Me2B, and will give each of us scale, much as the standards that make the Internet, browsers and email all give us scale. And that scale will be just as good for the companies we deal with as are the Internet, browsers and email.

If you think “none of the stores out there will want any of this, because they won’t control it,” think about what personal operating systems and browsers on every device have already done for stores by making the customer interface standard. What we’re talking about here is enlarging that interface.

I’d love to see if there is any economics research and/or scholarship on personal scale and its leverage (such as personal operating systems, devices and browsers give us) in the digital world). Because it’s a case that needs to be made.

Of course, there’s money to me made as well, because there will be so many more, better and standard ways for companies to deal with customers than current tools (including email, apps and browsers) can by themselves.

Customertech Will Turn the Online Marketplace Into a Marvel-Like Universe in Which All of Us are Enhanced

enhanced-by-customertech

We’ve been thinking too small.

Specifically, we’ve been thinking about data as if it ought to be something big, when it’s just bits.

Your life in the networked world is no more about data than your body is about cells.

What matters most to us online is agency, not data. Agency is the capacity, condition, or state of acting or of exerting power (Merriam-Webster).

Nearly all the world’s martech and adtech assumes we have no more agency in the marketplace than marketing provides us, which is kind of the way ranchers look at cattle. That’s why bad marketers assume, without irony, that it’s their sole responsibility to provide us with an “experience” on our “journey” down what they call a “funnel.”

What can we do as humans online that isn’t a grace of Apple, Amazon, Facebook or Google?

Marshall McLuhan says every new technology is “an extension of ourselves.” Another of his tenets is “we shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us.” Thus Customertech—tools for customers—will inevitably enlarge our agency and change us in the process.

For example, with customertech, we can—

Compared to what we have in the offline world, these are superpowers. When customertech gives us these superpowers, the marketplace will become a Marvel-like universe filled with enhanced individuals. Trust me: this will be just as good for business as it will be for each of us.

We can’t get there if all we’re thinking about is data.

By the way, I made this same case to Mozilla in December 2015, on the last day I consulted the company that year. I did it through a talk called Giving Users Superpowers at an all-hands event called Mozlando. I don’t normally use slides, but this time I did, leveraging the very slides Mozilla keynoters showed earlier, which I shot with my phone from the audience. Download the slide deck here, and be sure to view it with the speaker’s notes showing. The advice I give in it is still good.

BTW, a big HT to @SeanBohan for the Superpowers angle, starting with the title (which he gave me) for the Mozlando talk.

 

 

Our radical hack on the whole marketplace

In Disruption isn’t the whole VRM story, I visited the Tetrad of Media Effects, from Laws of Media: the New Science, by Marshall and Eric McLuhan. Every new medium (which can be anything from a stone arrowhead to a self-driving car), the McLuhans say, does four things, which they pose as questions that can have multiple answers, and they visualize this way:

tetrad-of-media-effects

The McLuhans also famously explained their work with this encompassing statement: We shape our tools and thereafter they shape us.

This can go for institutions, such as businesses, and whole marketplaces, as well as people. We saw that happen in a big way with contracts of adhesion: those one-sided non-agreements we click on every time we acquire a new login and password, so we can deal with yet another site or service online.

These were named in 1943 by the law professor Friedrich “Fritz” Kessler in his landmark paper, “Contracts of Adhesion: Some Thoughts about Freedom of Contract.” Here is pretty much his whole case, expressed in a tetrad:

contracts-of-adhesion

Contracts of adhesion were tools industry shaped, was in turn shaped by, and in turn shaped the whole marketplace.

But now we have the Internet, which by design gives everyone on it a place to stand, and, like Archimedes with his lever, move the world.

We are now developing that lever, in the form of terms any one of us can assert, as a first party, and the other side—the businesses we deal with—can agree to, automatically. Which they’ll do it because it’s good for them.

I describe our first two terms, both of which have potentials toward enormous changes, in two similar posts put up elsewhere: 

— What if businesses agreed to customers’ terms and conditions? 

— The only way customers come first

And we’ll work some of those terms this week, fittingly, at the Computer History Museum in Silicon Valley, starting tomorrow at VRM Day and then Tuesday through Thursday at the Internet Identity Workshop. I host the former and co-host the latter, our 24th. One is free and the other is cheap for a conference.

Here is what will come of our work:
personal-terms

Trust me: nothing you can do is more leveraged than helping make this happen.

See you there.

 

“Disruption” isn’t the whole VRM story

250px-mediatetrad-svg

The vast oeuvre of Marshall McLuhan contains a wonderful approach to understanding media called the tetrad (i.e. foursome) of media effects.  You can apply it to anything, from stone tools to robots. McLuhan unpacks it with four questions:

  1. What does the medium enhance?
  2. What does the medium make obsolete?
  3. What does the medium retrieve that had been obsolesced earlier?
  4. What does the medium reverse or flip into when pushed to extremes?

I suggest that VRM—

  1. Enhances CRM
  2. Obsoletes marketing guesswork, especially adtech
  3. Retrieves conversation
  4. Reverses or flips into the bazaar

Note that many answers are possible. That’s why McLuhan poses the tetrad as questions. Very clever and useful.

I bring this up for three reasons:

  1. The tetrad is also helpful for understanding every topic that starts with “disruption.” Because a new medium (or technology) does much more than just disrupt or obsolete an old one—yet not so much more that it can’t be understood inside a framework.
  2. The idea from the start with VRM has never been to disrupt or obsolete CRM, but rather to give it a hand to shake—and a way customers can pull it out of the morass of market-makers (especially adtech) that waste its time, talents and energies.
  3. After ten years of ProjectVRM, we still don’t have a single standardized base VRM medium (e.g. a protocol), even though we have by now hundreds of developers we call VRM in one way or another. Think of this missing medium as a single way, or set of ways, that VRM demand can interact with CRM supply, and give every customer scale across all the companies they deal with. We’ve needed that from the start. But perhaps, with this handy pedagogical tool, we can look thorugh one framework toward both the causes and effects of what we want to make happen.

I expect this framework to be useful at VRM Day (May 1 at the Computer History Museum) and at IIW on the three days that follow there.

Save

VRM Day: Starting Phase Two

VRM Day is today, 24 October, at the Computer History Museum. IIW follows, over the next three days at the same place. (The original version of this post was October 17.)

We’ve been doing VRM Days since (let’s see…) this one in 2013, and VRM events since this one in 2007. Coming on our tenth anniversary, this is our last in Phase One.

sisyphusTheRolling snowball difference between Phase One and Phase Two is that between rocks and snowballs. In Phase One we played Sisyphus, pushing a rock uphill. In Phase Two we roll snowballs downhill.

Phase One was about getting us to the point where VRM was accepted by many as a thing bound to happen. This has taken ten years, but we are there.

Phase Two is about making it happen, by betting our energies on ideas and work that starts rolling downhill and gaining size and momentum.

Some of that work is already rolling. Some is poised to start. Both kinds will be on the table at VRM Day. Here are ones currently on the agenda:

  • VRM + CRM via JLINC. See At last: a protocol to link VRM and CRM. , and The new frontier for CRM is CDL: customer driven leads. This is a one form of intentcasting that should be enormously appealing to CRM companies and their B2B corporate customers. Speaking of which, we also have—
  • Big companies welcoming VRM.  Leading this is Fing, a French think tank that brings together many of the country’s largest companies, both to welcome VRM and to research (e.g. through Mesinfos) how the future might play out. Sarah Medjek of Fing will present that work, and lead discussion of where it will head next. We will also get a chance to participate in that research by providing her with our own use cases for VRM. (We’ll take out a few minutes to each fill out an online form.)
  • Terms individuals assert in dealings with companies. These are required for countless purposes. Mary Hodder will lead discussion of terms currently being developed at Customer Commons and the CISWG / Kantara User Submitted Terms working group (Consent and Information Sharing Working Group). Among other things, this leads to—
  • 2016_04_25_vrmday_000-1Next steps in tracking protection and ad blocking. At the last VRM Day and IIW, we discussed CHEDDAR on the server side and #NoStalking on the individual’s side. There are now huge opportunities with both, especially if we can normalize #NoStalking terms for all tracking protection and ad blocking tools.  To prep for this, see  Why #NoStalking is a good deal for publishers, where you’ll find the image on the right, copied from the whiteboard on VRM Day.
  • Blockchain, Identity and VRM. Read what Phil Windley has been writing lately distributed ledgers (e.g. blockchain) and what they bring to the identity discussions that have been happening for 22 IIWs, so far. There are many relevancies to VRM.
  • Personal data. This was the main topic at two recent big events in Europe: MyData2016 in Helsinki and PIE (peronal information economy) 2016 in London.  The long-standing anchor for discussions and work on the topic at VRM Day and IIW is PDEC (Personal Data Ecosystem Consortium). Dean Landsman of PDEC will keep that conversational ball rolling. Adrian Gropper will also brief us on recent developments around personal health data as well.
  • Hacks on the financial system. Kevin Cox can’t make it, but wants me to share what he would have presented. Three links: 1) a one minute video that shows why the financial system is so expensive, 2) part of a blog post respecting his local Water Authority and newly elected government., and 3) an explanation of the idea of how we can build low-cost systems of interacting agents. He adds, “Note the progression from location, to address, to identity, to money, to housing.  They are all ‘the same’.” We will also look at how small business and individuals have more in common than either do with big business. With a hint toward that, see what Xero (the very hot small business accounting software company) says here.
  • What ProjectVRM becomes. We’ve been a Berkman-Klein Center project from the start. We’ve already spun off Customer Commons. Inevitably, ProjectVRM will itself be spun off, or evolve in some TBD way. We need to co-think and co-plan how that will go. It will certainly live on in the DNA of VRM and VRooMy work of many kinds. How and where it lives on organizationally is an open question we’ll need to answer.

Here is a straw man context for all of those and more.

  • Top Level: Tools for people. These are ones which, in legal terms, give individuals power as first parties. In mathematical terms, they make us independent variables, rather than dependent ones. Our focus from the start has been independence and engagement.
    • VRM in the literal sense: whatever engages companies’ CRM or equivalent systems.
    • Intentcasting.
    • PIMS—Personal Information Management Systems. Goes by many names: personal clouds, personal data stores, life management platforms and so on. Ctrl-Shift has done a good job of branding PIMS, however. We should all just go with that.
    • Privacy tools. Such as those provided by tracking protection (and tracking-protective ad blocking).
    • Legal tools. Such as the terms Customer Commons and the CISWG are working on.
    • UI elements. Such as the r-button.
    • Transaction & payment systems. Such as EmanciPay.

Those overlap to some degree. For example, a PIMS app and data store can do all that stuff. But we do need to pull the concerns and categories apart as much as we can, just so we can talk about them.

Kaliya will facilitate VRM Day. She and I are still working on the agenda. Let us know what you’d like to add to the list above, and we’ll do what we can. (At IIW, you’ll do it, because it’s an unconference. That’s where all the topics are provided by participants.)

Again, register here. And see you there.

 

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What small businesses and their customers have in common

small vs largeSmall businesses and their customers both have problems dealing with big businesses that are more vested in captive markets than in free ones. So, since VRM is about independence and engagement, we may have an opportunity for customers and small businesses to join in common cause.

To dig deeper into that possibility, I interviewed LaVonne Reimer, who runs Lumenous (a startup that  provides ways for small businesses to create and share credit profiles on their own terms). Here goes—

DS: How big is small business?

LR: The domestic small business market in the U.S. is currently at 28 million firms. This includes employer and non-employer firms that provide products or services to their neighborhoods and communities as well as those that provide a unique offering to a larger supply chain or marketplace.

The impact of credit decisions is another big number—how at least $4 trillion flows to small business in the U.S.. That includes a significant portion of over $1 trillion in federal contracts and grants, and $700 billion in loans, a substantial portion of which are backed by the Small Business Administration (SBA).

DS: What’s the biggest issue for small business, and how is that similar to issues for individuals?

LR: Credit. The $28 billion credit industry provides creditworthiness indicators as well as personal identity and entity verification for both businesses and individuals. From the standpoint of both, that industry is a collection of black boxes. They are unaccountable collections of algorithms that can make or break a business, or often its owner, without explaining why. Or even knowing why.

The incumbent with the biggest impact on small business credit is Dun & Bradstreet. Founded in 1841, D&B is the grandfather of all credit bureaus and in many respects the originator of corporate surveillance.  And now D&B is in the identity business as well, putting those being identified at D&B’s mercy.

DS: How?

LR: Through the Data Universal Numbering System, better known as DUNS. It’s a loss leader that gives D&B a potent tool for finding and extracting information from business owners not otherwise publicly available. And it’s all done out of the sight of the business, and—effectively—government as well.

DS: Are they alone at this?

LR: No. A handful of venture-backed “fintech” startups are using similar technology to harvest data. Some of the data gathering might be initially authorized by the business owner. Other data they can scrape or mine from the Web to determine creditworthiness for purposes of making loans. Many do not disclose “effective APR” but recent Federal Reserve System research suggests the range may be from over 50% at the low end to somewhere in the hundreds. Business owners may get loans they couldn’t get from regulated or traditional banks but are blind-sided by onerous terms and in some cases thrown into bankruptcy because the collection model—daily automated micro-payments—catches them off guard, for example by triggering excessive non-sufficient funds (NSF) fees. To a business owner, these providers seem much like credit bureaus. There is no way yet to leverage or re-use the data you have to supply to get the loan, much less understand how the algorithms work.

I should add that a small business “bill of rights” has been circulating among start-ups; but it under-estimates the degree to which the odds are stacked against a small business across commercial credit.”

DS: What about government oversight?

LR: Today, consumer identity and credit providers must comply with the Fair Credit Reporting Act, but the FCRA and similar regulations do not govern small business credit, not even when consumer credit information is used to verify the identity and creditworthiness of the entity and owner.

There is, however, increasing scrutiny by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) of big data systems in credit profiling and other data brokers. In multiple enforcement orders and two major reports, the FTC is calling on identity and data providers to demonstrate greater transparency and accountability in the uses of personal data. One report is Big Data: A Tool for Inclusion or Exclusion? The other is “Data Brokers: A Call for Transparency and Accountability.

Still, as is true of the Fair Credit Reporting Act, small business is left unaddressed, even if creditors use consumer credit information associated with the owner of the business.

DS: What outcomes are we looking for here?

LR:  At Lumenous, we are applying the principles of VRM to transform the relationship between small business and creditors. As a result, up to six million small employer firms will be able to access the credit, capital, and commerce they deserve.. This will lead to better leverage of cash and ability to not only meet payroll and pay bills on time, but also better contribute to the economic well-being of their communities. Twenty-two million “non employer firms”—freelancers and sole proprietors, for example—will have access to credit, and more easily form trusted joint ventures to bid on otherwise out-of-reach projects.

DS: Are there any large companies that are working to bring small business and their customers together in the fight to improve the economy from the bottom up?

LR: I really like what Xero is doing. It is far more friendly and useful to small business than other accounting software and services companies (especially Quickbooks). It’s growing rapidly too. I believe that;s because it has a deep understanding of how small business works, and a genuine respect for how small business owners think about their firms, and those firms’ roles in the world.

DS: I noticed. Xero’s CEO, Rod Drury, sourced a recent post of mine in a talk he gave just a few days ago. And Gary Turner, an old friend from my Cluetrain days, is Managing Director of Xero in the UK. I’ll be talking with both in the next few days as well.

LR: I expect that Xero will also have lots of useful intelligence about what’s actually happening with small business, worldwide—and with possible VRM connections.

And here are some bonus sources, mostly courtesy of LaVonne:

There are many more, but I’ll save those for a follow-up post.

 

 

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