Misadventures in Transparency: Data Site Comes Up Short

The following is an edited version of a blog post written by Qnary CEO Bant Breen on the company’s blog and republished with permission here. Read the original version on Qnary’s site, and follow Breen on Twitter @bantbreen.

If it is all about the data these days, Acxiom’s About the Data site has gotten it all wrong.

Acxiom promises the site “brings you answers to questions about the data that fuels marketing and helps ensure you see offers on things that mean the most to you and your family.”

The site does not live up to this promise. In fact, it falls so short of delivering on this objective that one questions whether that was the site’s objective in the first place. The site received mixed to scathing reviews. My personal experience with the site and the experience of our staff veers toward a scathing review.

The data is incomplete. For me, most of the six categories of data that Acxiom promises to provide: characteristic data, home data, vehicle data, economic data, shopping data, and household interests data, were completely empty. In a straw poll of our team, everyone had at least two categories with no data available. The New York Times article on the launch of About the Data even went further in highlighting the incomplete nature of the data. The New York Times states, “Aboutthedata.com, at least in its initial incarnation, leaves out many data elements that Acxiom markets to its corporate clients — intimate details like whether a person is a “potential inheritor” or an “adult with senior parent,” or whether a household has a “diabetic focus” or “senior needs.” Without a more complete picture of industry practices, privacy advocates say, consumers cannot make informed decisions about whether to share personal information with companies.”

The data is inaccurate. The categories such as economic data were wrong. For our head of product, his household income was incorrect and credit card data was not right or complete. For our head of sales was pegged as a smoker, which he is not. For our company president, it got his birthday wrong, children’s ages wrong, and said that he had no cars (he has two). Apparently, based on Acxiom’s data, I am single. I’ll let my wife know. The examples of inaccuracy go on and on. CNET’s Dennis O’Reilly’s experience sums it up. O’Reilly wrote, “At least one big-name data broker thinks I’m an Asian who owns a cat and a boat and loves to travel. Sounds like someone who leads a much more interesting life than I do.”

About the Data is a muddled Web experience. The site would not let several of us log in again this morning, but seemed to be up and working this afternoon. After 15 tries our sales team execs was able to log in. Certainly the development team is still sorting out scale and stability issues. The site also does not load on my iOS6 iPhone, but seems to work on iOS7-enabled iPhones. I do not expect a company like Acxiom to deliver leading-edge web design or user experience but the site should at least work, be functional, and be clear.

The site, in its present incarnation, offers limited value for everyone except, perhaps, Acxiom which asks you to submit more data for it to collect when you log-in. Maybe this is the reason for the site. If users correct and update their personal data it becomes more accurate and worth more to Acxiom. If the site is not truly functional, then one must ask why it was built in the first place. Data brokers such as Acxiom have been under tremendous pressure to be more transparent by government and data privacy policy groups. Perhaps this site was more geared towards appeasing key decision makers such as Julie Brill, commissioner of the U.S. Federal Trade Commission. Brill has been an outspoken advocate for consumer data rights and has advocated for more transparency from the data brokers. In fact, Acxiom may have achieved their goal as Brill positively greeted the About the Data site and was quoted by the New York Times as saying, “a first step down this important road towards greater transparency.”

It is a step, but when something like this misses its target by such a degree of magnitude, it make one wonder whether it is a step forward, sideways, or, even possibly, backwards. I support the mission of the site and will join the chorus lauding the thought. If Acxiom truly believes in building a different sort of data world, they must go back to the drawing board on this one, look at the data, and start anew.

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