What Companies Would Owe You If You Actually Owned Your Data

From the moment you wake up, whenever the following things happen, I want you to tally up the associated dollar amount.

What Companies Would Owe You If You Actually Owned Your Data

I have an easy challenge for you today, and if you complete it, you'll realize you would have an extra income stream if not for the daily theft of your assets.

From the moment you wake up, whenever the following things happen, I want you to tally up the associated dollar amount. This running tally is your imaginary bank account for the day. Explanations of the prices follow.

  • Visit a website (desktop or mobile): $1
  • Buy something with a credit card or any other electronic transaction: $5
  • Click a link from one website to another: $2
  • Click on an ad on a website: $3
  • Drive somewhere with your phone: $5
  • Visit a brick and mortar store: $10

These prices assume that there is a market place where interested parties could bid on data bundles, of which your data is included. This market place transfers your cut of any data purchases to your account. If your data is bundled with 10,000 other people for a price of $1m, your cut is $100.

The difficulty for many people to wrap their head around is that a piece of data like a website visit would not be purchased or leased from you a single time. If you actually owned and controlled the data, it would be part of innumerable future data set purchases. So here I'm asking you to pretend that the dollar figures discussed are Monthly Recurring Revenue (MRR). So you may only get $.03 or $.04 per day for a website visit, but in aggregate you got $1 for the month.

If these numbers seem high to you, extend the time period to whatever you think is reasonable and project how many times you take the above actions within that time period. In a future where there are automated and frictionless data purchases, I think these monthly figures are plausible.

Who would pay? Business owners, marketers, researchers, startups, government agencies, analytics and data companies, etc. I think it's harder to find a business that wouldn't want to pay for at least some of this data. And while some might not pay very much, it adds up across the number of buyers and over the number of years you would own the data.

Driving and Physical Location

The self-driving car race is fueled by data. Companies like Tesla and Uber need to analyze billions of real world drives to make sure their autopilot can handle anything the world throws at it. Companies like Comma.ai are crowdsourcing driving data to improve its self-driving algorithms.

If all of the many self-driving car companies could buy the data from all the drives you've ever taken, how much do you think they would pay? A relatively large amount for something we've never considered to be valuable before. Waze and Google Maps are already monetizing your drives if you use their services.

And what about physical location in general? Especially real time location. Where is everybody right now? How many people are at the restaurant I want to go to. Who's there? Which of my favorite restaurants is least busy? Right now Foursquare has the answers and they're selling them without paying the contributors of the data set.

Visit a Website

Whenever you visit a website, lots of information is collected: Your location, how long you spend on the page, what website are you coming from, what you clicked on the page, how far you scrolled down, what browser you're using, what OS you're using, the time of day you visited, have you visited this site before, etc. I can't even list them all.

The internet has been around long enough where we can start to think in decades of browsing history. If you own your history, one could imagine that there are new, valuable insights to be learned from a large scale view of the data over 10 years.

One could track the popularity of certain websites over time, combine traffic with world events to see certain correlations or causations, compare similar browsing histories with health profiles to see if there's a relationship, derive some predictive analytics to deliver you highly effective ads, etc. It's not up to you to see the value, all you have to do is make it available to interested parties for a certain price.

Buy Something

Why do you think Amazon is trying to automate the grocery store? For your convenience? No, it's because they want complete 360 data on your behavior and purchasing decisions. They then want to use that to remove frictions between you and purchases, as well as manipulate your behavior to make you a more profitable consumer.

Right now purchases are a key part of the marketing funnel. Once a purchase is made, marketers want to see all the steps that lead up to it. What influenced you to make that purchase? Was it an ad you saw, did a friend tell you about it, did you read a review online? This is a crucial data set to be run against all the data they have from their ad and branding campaigns to measure effectiveness and conversion.

Right now credit cards companies and any digital payment products like Apple Pay or PayPal are benefiting financially from this very valuable purchasing behavior and not passing along any of that money to you. I think $5 MRR per purchase is pretty conservative when you consider how valuable the data point is.


There's a reason that advertisers pay per click. It's a very valuable action for a user to take. It says, "I'm interested in this." A click on an ad shows it's effective, a click on a link shows how users flow through a sequence of pages. Once these things are known, they can be predicted and manipulated. Let's run five different ads and then see which one gets more clicks, now use that ad instead of the others.

But that's just finding an effective ad. From Facebook we've learned that algorithms designed to optimize engagement don't just find the stuff you'll click on, they guide your behavior to make you a more productive clicker. Optimization at scale looks a lot like mass mind control.

If companies are going to build billion dollar ad businesses off of their ability to generate purchases from consumers, they should at least be paying you and I for our clicks that contributed to their dystopian algorithms :P

Report Back

Once you've completed the challenge, I'd like to hear how it went. Did anything surprise you? How much money did you end up with? Did it make your feel differently about the daily value that you generate with your data? Would you want to see that amount of money appear in your bank account every day?

Cover image by Dan Gold on Unsplash