Camille CharluetFormer Editor, TNW Spaces
Murky policies, tricky wordings, and sneaky assumptions about consent… these are just a few of the shifty tactics being used by companies to learn all about us. With more and more businesses realizing the lucrative power of personal data, there’s no denying that our deeply personal details are being weaponized against us.
Whether data is used for creepy targeted advertising or bought or sold to third-parties, it’s clear many companies and hackers don’t have our best interests in mind. In fact, according to IMDEA Networks Institute, seven in ten smartphone apps share your data with third-parties these days. And just recently, 14 million Hostinger customers had their info exposed by hackers due to a vulnerability.
The dangers of handling highly sensitive information are loud and clear, and consumers are demanding more privacy. So, isn’t it about time companies looked for a more sustainable business model — one that’s safer, more ethical, and more efficient?
Using alternative data to make better decisions
One Dutch startup that believes data monetization and privacy can coexist is alternative data company, Suburbia. Founded in 2018 as a venture of ING bank, it uses new and overlooked sources of non-personal transaction data to help clients make better decisions.
As Suburbia’s CEO, Hamza Khan explained to TNW: “Traditional data collection as we know it is very slow, inaccurate, and difficult to access, creating real problems for economists, analysts, and investors. What Suburbia does is collect data from new sources, clean, and process it, and uses this ‘alternative data’ to give our users insights about market trends.”
When Khan says “new sources of alternative data,” he means things like using satellites to measure crop growth, or ship movements to determine trade activity. With sensor technology advancing and the internet of things connecting the world, the startup sees all this data as an insight gold mine.
“On a recurring basis, we track around 130 million products over 25 countries, with a strong focus on the Benelux and Germany,” said Khan. “We can see which products are being sold, for how much, at what times, and where, and from there, customers use our data set to pinpoint patterns and predict trends.”
As long as you have personal data, you’re at risk of a breach
When I asked Khan about Suburbia’s biggest achievement, he was quick to mention the company’s commitment to privacy. “There’s a sentiment around the world that for data to have value, it has to be as detailed and as personal as possible — and outside of that, it feels like it’s not being considered,” he explained. “At Suburbia, we believe data should be non-personal at its core, we don’t accept or process any data about the purchaser – just the purchase.”
While Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) has helped to create greater awareness about data protection, Khan believes it’s merely a band-aid solution. “I feel like every time I open up the news there’s a new data breach, and you have to wonder, is the next one really going to be prevented by regulation or company policies? The only way to fix the personal data problem is to not use it in the first place.”
What does the future look like for alternative data?
With big plans to expand into Asia and the US in the next quarter, Khan is excited about what’s to come. The vision is to expand Suburbia’s core data product across regions and products, enabling customers to extract even more useful intelligence.
In global news, Suburbia was selected to attend the Tokyo Fintech Business Camp 2019. Every year, Accenture Japan and the Mayor of Tokyo select a dozen foreign companies out of hundreds of applicants to spend two months meeting with leading Japanese companies and financial institutions.
In preparation for the 2020 Olympics, Tokyo is seeking to become a more connected city driven by data – and Suburbia’s expertise has meant it’s become the first-ever Dutch company to be accepted into the program.
While things are looking up for Suburbia, Khan was quick to admit that alternative data companies don’t have it easy. “The biggest challenge for companies like ours is being a data company in the age of a data crisis. People are so used to being disappointed, and convincing them there’s a better, safer way to process data takes a lot of explaining and convincing.”
Despite his concerns, with better regulation, more discussion, and new technologies, the conversations about alternative data are getting easier. As Khan put it: “Today’s alternative data will be tomorrow’s mainstream data. You can still have no personal information and create value, and we’re really proud to do that.”
Get the TNW newsletter
Get the most important tech news in your inbox each week.