Insight and Intelligence on the London & International Insurance Markets 24 Apr 2018

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Small data and insurance

  • Mark Geoghegan 28 November 2017
  • For a medium supposed to set people free, it is amazing how the development of the worldwide web has corralled us into various silos.

    We search, shop, email, chat and access social media via a tight oligopoly of providers.

    It is hard to have multiple relationships because once the inertia of sign-up has been overcome we are quite heavily invested in the platform we have chosen.

    Social media is particularly sticky in this regard, for once all friends and family are on board it is almost impossible to say goodbye.

    Leaving a near-ubiquitous platform such as Facebook is a deliberate act of isolation, akin to what not having a landline telephone used to be.

    The problem is that it has made the end customer into a commodity. People have become data, to be analysed and harvested for profit.

    Facebook will eventually lose any reason to innovate. Its platform can grow clunky and unwieldy because there will be no viable alternative.

    Depressing, isn't it?

    It's also incredibly insecure because all our most compromising personal data is sitting with multiple third parties.

    But it doesn't have to be this way.

    Don't take my word for it, take that of inventor of the worldwide web, Sir Tim Berners-Lee.

    I was lucky enough to meet him last week at CFC Underwriting's Cyber Symposium.

    When asked why he had never tried to exploit his invention commercially, Berners-Lee said that if he hadn't given his invention away it would never have got off the ground. It would have been just another closed network competing with other better-funded ones.

    He understood that its real value was its universality.

    He explained that his latest project at MIT was all about allowing individuals to take back control of their data so that they can decide what to do with it and who to share it with. The project is called Solid.

    It's worth checking out. Not for the first time in his life he is onto something really big.

    All the best things to come out of the tech revolution have been collaborative and have tended towards universality.

    Digital images, video and music have all evolved to use universal formats (otherwise they would be no use to anyone). And after years of competition, contacts and calendars are also fully portable.

    But that's about as far as we have got.

    Sir Tim sees us individuals becoming fully portable too, reclaiming ownership of all our relationships, privacy and media and choosing the best applications with which to connect with others and business.

    We will at last be able to switch platforms painlessly. Commercial app developers will just have to go back to competing hard and innovating to gain our custom.

    Meanwhile incumbent web giants won't be able sell their understanding of us to third parties as they currently do.

    For instance under Berners-Lee's vision, when consumers buy insurance they will choose to allow a digital insurance agent in to quote.

    But the data will only be accessed for the purposes of that quote and cannot be harvested by the insurer without express permission and purpose (for example, data might still perhaps be anonymised for aggregation purposes and use for catastrophe research).

    Since the earliest times smart insurers have always realised that data is gold.

    Today's smartest are investing millions into platforms that facilitate the attraction and retention of data-producing customers and exploiting the insights they bring.

    But insurers are arriving at the big personal data party too late.

    We forget how incredibly new the web is at our peril.

    Sir Tim's second vision is one that makes the most sense and benefits the most.

    The smartest of us should prepare for the post-Facebook world.

    Things, not people, will be where we should make our strongest pitch.

    And as P&C insurers, this should suit us just fine.

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