Personal.com Creates An Online Vault To Manage All Your Data

A search for a way to put consumers in control of their information produces a tool that will simplify our lives.

How often do you have to reach out to a colleague for the password (that you've forgotten) to some web-based system your company uses? Or, how often does your spouse ping you to get a bank account or mutual fund number? And can we talk about how much of a headache it is to simply keep track of your frequent flyer numbers?

Personal.com, a Washington, D.C.-based startup, has come up with a tool to make tracking--and sharing--all these details drop-dead simple. And along the way, it might also end up turning the much-jabbered digital privacy debate on its head--by developing a way to put the power to control (and monetize) personal data in the hands of people who generate that data in the first place. Namely, you.

But first, the app.

The amount of data and other nuggets of information we all have to keep track of is exploding by the day: passwords, alarm codes, birthdays, passport numbers, bank account numbers, names of drugs you (or your loved ones) are currently taking, retirement account numbers, credit card numbers (and security codes!), allergy information, insurance policy numbers…. not to mention things like instructions on how to use the DVR (that your house guests and babysitter need), pet-care information (that your vet and pet sitters need), directions to your house or office (have I exhausted you yet?). All of these have to be typed out from scratch every time you have to hand that information to someone new.

What if instead you had a cloud-based system--a vault of sorts--where you could store all this information? And could access it from any device you had on you at the moment--your computer, your cellphone, a tablet, even someone else's computer? And what if you could choose to make bits and pieces of that information available to other people, who also needed it, on a piece-by-piece basis? For example, when you get a new dog walker, you just give them access to the pet-care information part of your vault. Or when you get a new employee, you give them access to the web-based passwords.

That's what Personal.com has created: a cloud-based "data vault" (pictured, right) where you store distinct bits of information in individual buckets (called "gems") to which you can assign permissions on a case-by-case basis.

"We wanted to create a safe and secure place where you can aggregate all your personal data," Personal.com's cofounder and CEO Shane Green tells Fast Company.

The web-based and Android versions have been available since November. The iPhone version was added last week.

The service is currently free (it's still in beta). But Green says the company is planning on implementing a Dropbox-style freemium model, where paid tiers will be added based on criteria yet to be determined, possibly usage.

Green says the idea for the data vault came out a larger idea around giving consumers control over how they're marketed to that came to him while he was in charge of mapping products at Nokia. The cellphone maker acquired Green's previous startup, The Map Network, in 2007.

The Map Network allowed people to create maps, or layers of information, about the insides of buildings. Groups organizing sporting events or political conventions, for example, could make maps of where specific booths would be placed or where water and electricity hookups were located.

At Nokia, Green realized that people weren't much different than buildings. They too had tons of attributes that could be mapped to them. Things like age, gender, ethnicity, hometown, and income, of course. But also all the granular things that marketing organizations are increasingly trying to identify today: what sports they like to play, what products they buy, major life changes they're going through, where they like to vacation.

Marketing organizations gather this information in order to better identify their likely customers, so they can, in turn, do a better job of putting their messages in front of those folks and not the people who aren't interested.

Now that we're all creating exponentially more digital exhaust than we were even 10 years ago, a booming industry has emerged to collect that information and sell it to marketers. Stories describing these trends (like this ongoing series from the Wall Street Journal or the recent piece about's Target's, well, targeting strategy in the New York Times Magazine) has generated alarm among privacy groups as well as consumers about the detail with which they're being profiled.

Green sees things a little differently. More detail can lead to better matchmaking between companies and consumers. After all, wouldn't you rather see more ads about things you might actually be interested in and fewer about things you're not? (Data point of one: Since Facebook started Sponsored Stories, I've received fewer ads for weight-loss programs and wrinkle creams (which probably targeted me solely based on my gender and, possibly, age) and more about Muddy Buddy races and cottages friends have rented on Airbnb. And, indeed, I'd much rather get the new ads than the old ones. I've even clicked through to the races and the cottages (but never did that with the creams and diets).

But Green, who started Personal.com in 2009 with several of his Map Network colleagues, also believes that the power over how the data should be used should be left in the hands of consumers. And he believes that if anyone's going to make a buck off helping companies know who their likely customers are, it, again, should be the consumer. Personal.com is exploring ways of making both of those possible. 

"We're talking to brands and ad networks about ways to create environments where people can maximize the value of their data, if they choose," Green says.

He gives an example: Let's say you need to buy a new family car. You know the general attributes you're looking for (safety, size, DVD player), but you haven't decided on a make or model yet. Local dealers who have vehicles that fit your criteria would be very interested in knowing you're in the market. You're a hot lead after all, and being able to approach you directly, rather than plastering ads over TV, is a much better use of their advertising dollars. 

Personal.com wants to create a marketplace where you can let your future purchasing plans be known, and marketers would pay to tell you directly about their products and services. (Green says you would remain anonymous until you decided to move ahead with a specific vendor.)

"The idea is pretty disruptive for people [like advertisers] who usually bank on a one percent success rate," Green says.

Indeed, taken to its logical conclusion, a system that lets consumers self-qualify has the potential to disrupt the entire advertising industry and upend the digital privacy debate. Instead of thinking of the digital data as something collected by others and somehow used against you, it becomes a mechanism for you to get companies to send you information about things you actually want to buy.

"This model can change industries across the board," Green says. The challenge, he says, is in simply "getting people to care about their data." 

Personal.com is still in the process of figuring out how all this would work and what its relationship would be to the data vault, the idea for which came out of research into the larger question of giving users control over--and getting them to care about--their data.

Another idea also came up during that process--an app that will allow you to instantly fill out forms using the data in the vault. It's in the works, Green says, and moms and dads who've suffered through the tedium of filling out endless forms with information about their kids--for after-school activities, field trips, weekend sports leagues, and so on--will probably chomp at the bit to get a hold of that one. "We want to make form-filling obsolete," Green says. "Once you have kids, cars, pets, and houses, it becomes non-stop."

Green's thinking has been influenced by Doc Searls and his new book The Intention Economy, stresses that no matter how Personal.com's services evolve, they will not involve Personal.com selling your data. In fact, he emphasizes, the Personal.com terms of service codify that users themselves own their own data. Personal.com may lease it, with your permission, or simply create a matchmaking service. 

Added to that, Green says, users will get a chance to profit themselves from the matchmaking. The majority of the fees that marketers pay to Personal.com for the hot leads would go to the consumers themselves, with Personal.com keeping a small proportion (the company says 10 percent).

The company has received top-dog funding from former AOL chief Steve Case's Revolution venture capital firm and Grotech Ventures, both of which have invested in Living Social and, says Green, are interested in models that empower consumers and disrupt typical consumer industries. Allen & Company, and TCS Capital are also investors.

Green declines to talk user numbers, and when pressed only states that Personal.com has "more than 10,000 and fewer than a million" users. The number of weekly new signups keeps growing, he adds.

Personal.com also recently soft-launched an API and a developer network. Given how much data people will be storing in the data vault, Green says, it makes sense to enable the creation of tools for consumers that could use that data (with the user's permission) and make other parts of their lives more efficient.

"This is a serious mission," says Green, whose own interest in giving consumers control over their data stems in part from time he spent in East Germany as a student, back when it was still part of the Soviet bloc and was still a place where people were surveilled and tracked. "The world is not going back to analog," Green continues. "We are going to be digital until the end of time. We at Personal.com just want to be one of the players that tries to make it more responsible and more centered around the person, and not just the needs and interests of the companies."

[Image: Flickr user Todd Ehlers]

E.B. Boyd is FastCompany.com's Silicon Valley reporter. Twitter | Google+ | Email

Add New Comment

4 Comments

  • Shaun Dakin

    Congrats to Shane and the team at Personal for pushing the envelop on thinking and technology around personal data privacy.    I've been very impressed with the team's focus and thought leadership around this important issue.

    Shaun Dakin
    Founder @PrivacyCamp:twitter 
    Founder #PrivChat - the privacy chat on twitter

    NOTE:  Shane was a guest on #PrivChat a few weeks ago

  • D. Weiss

    This app is extremely limited. First of all, you can't use the data in any useful way other than to potentially, down the line, sell it to advertisers -- which is a very unexciting offer, if you ask me. (I don't want advertisers to ever have my data.) Their weird "gems" are really not any more convenient that putting together, say, a PDF or Word doc for your babysitter about your kids' allergies, etc. There are other companies doing personal data lockers better than Personal -- and not just that, actually help you use the data in a practical way, actively as you use the web.

  • Aswath Rao

    There is another possibility: the vault could be in our homes running under our control. No worries of ever becoming a product. #EnThinnai

  • Don Jarrell

    As a straight-up service, paid for by users, this might be quite good.  As soon as the 'and we could use this information to help marketeers get to you' perspective (as yet not detailed) my interest level went to zero.  As the saying goes, you are not the user, you're the product being sold to marketers and vendors.