These days, the generation of data has become almost as constant as breathing. With every click or swipe, today’s mobile, hyperconnected consumers exhale an ever-expanding trail of digital details, revealing troves of information about their wants, needs, interests, well-being, and aspirations.

All of that data offers great promise for retailers looking to know their customers in deep, new ways in order to provide carefully targeted products and services. But it is also a source of headaches. Those same retailers are wrestling with a complex new realm of Big Data analytics, where a deluge of information from new sources like video, mobile, and social media threatens to swamp their capacity for processing. That is, if they can properly access those new data streams in the first place.

Consumers have their own worries. They constantly type their data into one website or another, while keeping track of myriad passwords. Once committed, they don’t know where that data is going, how secure it is, or to what ends it is being used. Identity theft is growing concern. Meanwhile, entities like Google and Facebook, which compile enormous amounts of data about individuals, are increasingly under pressure to maintain credibility and trust. Indeed, software is available to “de-Google” consumers, cutting off their stream of data to the search giant.

Ultimately, the debate over managing personal data becomes one of trust and ethics. But if retailers were to put consumers’ data to beneficial uses, more customers might be open to sharing it, under the right circumstances. Many customers who resent random pop-up ads, for example, already welcome Amazon’s recommendations for future purchases, which are based on data compiled around consumers’ buying histories. Going further, a retailer could offer, say, dietary or vitamin recommendations based on medical records, assuming a consumer agreed to share that data.

Cisco IBSG has already identified the need for third parties to smooth the Big Data value chain.  They could, for example, connect disparate players or offer cloud services for processing data. Another role could be that of a trusted holder and supplier of consumer information, further tying data originators (consumers) to data beneficiaries (retailers).

Some of these entities may already exist. The overall trusted “Data Infomediary” role could be assumed by an existing service provider, for example. But new start-ups or established entities could also arise to meet this need.

Role of Data Infomediaries

Again, building and maintaining trust with consumers —obviously managed in a highly secure environment—would be essential. A start-up, beginning with a “clean slate,” might be in a good position to establish a solid reputation with consumers.

As we have seen, despite legitimate privacy fears about sharing personal data, there are advantages for consumers. Personalized, targeted consumer advice, based on a customer’s past purchasing history, health records, social connections, and so forth, can be a blessing. And if one trusted entity managed a person’s data, it might simplify his or her daily life by increasing peace of mind, streamlining the data-sharing process, and cutting down on passwords and other hassles.

Another advantage for consumers could be financial. Just as banks pay interest on a person’s money, a trusted Data Infomediary might pay for the right to acquire and hold data (banks themselves might be candidates to manage data, since they are already trusted with money and personal information). After all, if a trusted Data Infomediary profited by making that data available to a retailer or another organization, then some of that money could filter back to the people who originated the data in the first place.

The era of Big Data is already upon us, and expanding all the time. Retail is but one industry facing a revolution in the way that information is processed and utilized. And consumers will want to weigh the benefits and disadvantages of spreading their personal information across a far-flung ecosystem fraught with security and privacy issues.

A trusted Data Infomediary, however, could smooth the way for all players, creating a win-win scenario for consumers and retailers alike.


Ronald van Zanten

Director, Internet Business Solutions Group

EMEAR and Latin America, Retail and Consumer Goods Industries