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Time to Get a New Address?

I’ve long been fascinated by unique identifier systems, because while often hard to implement, they can provide enormous value and constitute a great business opportunity. We’re all familiar with the D&B DUNS system, but there are far more identifier systems in use in vertical markets than you might expect. Don’t, for example, try to publish a book without an ISBN number. Similarly, don’t try to get into the advertising specialties business without an ASI number.

Identifier systems are not just for companies. They exist for people too. Physicians in the U.S. have government-issued unique identifiers. LexisNexis has implemented a similar private sector solution for lawyers called the International Standard Lawyer Number (ISLN). And we’re all of course familiar with Social Security numbers. For geographic locations, think about such identifiers as ZIP codes and their value in identifying specific geographic areas.

The power of unique identifiers is that that they serve as a sort of numeric lingua franca. Everyone agrees that a specific company, person or location is identified by a single permanent identifier. This removes ambiguity. It makes all sorts of transactions easier and more efficient. It allows for better and more precise record-keeping. And in this data-centric age, it makes matching of datasets easier and more precise. If everyone can agree on a unique identifier system, all sorts of things happen more easily and smoothly. Needless to say, the operator of the identifier system is in a powerful and lucrative position.

But how ambitious can you get with a non-governmental unique identifier system? After all, if you can’t mandate adoption of your identifiers, you’ve got to build voluntary participation. That’s tough in a narrow, vertical market. Imagine trying to build participation on a broad-based, global basis.

That’s why we were intrigued to run across perhaps the most ambitious attempt at a unique identifier system we have seen. It’s operated by a company called What3Words. Its goal is to assign a unique identifier to every inch of the planet, in 3 meter square blocks. Further, much like the Internet’s Domain Name System, What3Words assigns each block a three-word name instead of numbers, believing the system will be easier to use with words rather than hard to remember random numbers or latitude and longitude coordinates.

You may be saying, “cool, but who needs this?” Well, start with obvious examples of aid agencies trying to serve areas of rural Africa, where no neat systems like ZIP codes exist. Indeed, the founders of Just3Words are quick to note that 75% of the population of the earth essentially don’t exist because they have no physical address. Similarly, hikers and travelers will benefit from being able both to find and describe remote areas. And with much talk of delivery by drones in the near future, a uniform global geo-identifier could be very useful. A consistent system also benefits government administration, development of consistent and comparable statistics, and much more. Those of us who regularly deal with international addresses know they are an inconsistent mess, and these are addresses in advanced, developed countries. There are vast swaths of the planet that still lack addressing systems at all.

It’s a big project, but there’s a big need. And hopefully this brief overview inspires some big thinking about the potential of unique identifiers to make all kinds of activities take place more smoothly and efficiently, with some of those productivity savings accruing to the operator of the identifier system.

 

 

 

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Proposed Bill Puts the OPEN in Government Data

Should federal government data be open to the public? Perhaps a better way to frame the question is whether or not the federal government should make public data publicly available. Because databases compiled by the government are, with few exceptions, already open to the public, if you can track them down in the first place. And this problem with discovering government datasets has long been the rub.

The federal government collects data for many reasons, but generally data gathering is for regulatory, compliance or statistical reasons. When this data gathering relates to business entities, there’s usually a business opportunity to be found. That’s because government agencies usually collect data for one specific purpose only. For example, the Federal Aviation Administration maintains a database of all airplanes that are licensed for operation in the United States. It collects a lot of data about both the plane and its owner, but its overall objective is simply to keep a record of whether or not a given plane is licensed to operate. Even if it puts this database online for public access, your ability to search the database is limited to looking up specific airplanes by tail number or owner. This is the compliance focus of government manifesting itself. But that’s great news for commercial data publishers who can get the underlying database and add tremendous value simply by making the data parametrically searchable. Online government databases are almost always designed to help the user find information on a single, known entity. Parametric search creates a powerful sales prospecting tool. Suddenly, the database can be searched by make and model and age of the plane, with the ability to limit search results to specific geographies.

Needless to say, federal government databases can offer huge business opportunities because the government has done all the compilation work, at its own expense, and even keeps the database updated for you. But again, the challenge is finding and accessing these databases in the first place. Government agencies have no incentive to merchandise their internal databases, and many continue to resist opening their datasets to the public, usually out of bureaucratic fear or inertia.

Yes, there is data.gov, a much-heralded federal government initiative to not only move more data online, but to put it all in a central place. But the datasets of interest to commercial data publishers will rarely be found there. However, if you’re interested in data on migratory butterflies in Oklahoma, data.gov is a great place to go.

That’s why I am excited by the OPEN Government Data Act (OPEN Data Act, S. 2852, H.R. 5051) that will mandate that all federal government agencies make all of their datasets immediately available for public use, subject only to a handful of exceptions. This is a bill worth watching and supporting. Fortunes have already been made by commercial data publishers with the savvy and persistence to navigate the federal labyrinth. The OPEN Data Act will level the playing field and open even more opportunities to leverage government data for commercial applications. What’s not to like?

  

 

Disruption without Destruction

In 2013, I wrote about a fascinating new app called Vivino that used image recognition technology in place of the traditional database search interface. Snap a picture of a wine label using the app, and Vivino would search its database to return information on the wine, including ratings and price.

Lest you think this was a specialized, one-off application of image recognition technology, we now learn that Vivino has licensed its technology to a new app company called Magnus that wants to apply the same concept to the world of art. Step up to any painting or other piece of flat artwork (it reports over 8 million pieces of art in its database already), snap a picture, and the app will match it to a database record that will tell you the artist, the year it was created, the medium, and most significantly, the price most recently commanded at auction or the price being asked by the gallery where the art is currently being offered for sale.

Content comes from auction data results. To crack the gallery market, Magnus turns to crowdsourcing, but with a demanding quality control process behind the scenes.

The app is currently free, and this has a double benefit to Magnus. First, it builds the size of its audience some of whom will start to supply price data as well. Second, if Magnus gets to a critical mass of users, art galleries will feel compelled to supply price data to stay competitive, and that would really change the art market, which remains inordinately fond of supplying prices only “on request.”

And that’s truly what is most fascinating about Magnus: it is technically a disruptive data play in the art market, yet it’s not meant to displace galleries. The simple objective of Magnus is to get galleries to be more open about their pricing in the belief that this will make buying art less intimidating to the average consumer and grow art sales overall. There’s no evidence that Magnus is anything but sincere in its desire to help change gallery practices for the good of the galleries.

To date, disrupting a market has typically meant re-ordering an existing market to make a place for the disruptor, typically at the expense of some or all existing players in that market. Here, Magnus is simply trying to disrupt a single, hidebound industry practice for the greater benefit of the industry. Magnus creates a place for itself, but at nobody’s expense. This notion of “additive disruption” is intriguing, and worth further discussion. If there are opportunities to re-arrange or re-invigorate existing markets rather than blowing them up, the number of potential opportunities out there increases dramatically – a pretty picture indeed!

 

Old Models Never Die … They Evolve

Most of you (I think) remember the heyday of yellow pages when those thick print directories hit your doorstep, often followed weeks later by thinner but still hefty print directories from competing publishers. Now, if you receive a print yellow pages at all, it’s a shadow of its former self.

That’s why I was so surprised to receive a print, 120 page directory in the mail yesterday. It’s called Best Pick Reports and it is owned by EBSCO, a company known to most publishers but very few consumers.

I think it’s fair to call Best Pick Reports a next generation yellow pages. It’s organized by categories (with a focus on home improvement and repairs) and presents a list of local vendors. It’s also printed on inexpensive paper with modest production values, much in the spirit of the old yellow pages directories and suggesting saturation distribution, also a key aspect of the yellow pages model.

But Best Pick Reports also draws on the model of Angie’s List, presenting only local vendors that have been given high ratings by the local community. Angie’s List, however, struggled to sell this information as a subscription service to consumers, while Best Pick Reports distributes its information for free.

Drawing on the resources of EBSCO’s research arm, the company surveys consumers in local areas to develop lists of recommended plumbers, builders, etc. Those that receive high ratings are offered the chance to be listed in the publication for a fee, so while vendors can’t buy a rating, they do pay to play. Companies that do pay to list are assigned what appears to be key phone numbers to track response (another yellow pages innovation). Best Pick Reports also checks the license and insurance status of companies that pay to list.

Overall, it’s a fascinating blending of models. There are elements of the old yellow pages: categorized reference information and mass distribution. There are elements of the new vendor sourcing models: ratings and reviews, trust markers and focus on a limited selection of choices, presented as “the best.” And there are generous dollops of the innovative Angie’s List model, but modified to remove the vexing subscription component. At the same time, this model bypasses the anonymity that makes it hard to fully trust most of the big online review sites.

Is this an ideal model? While it has many appealing characteristics, this is an expensive business to operate. It needs a large and robust research capability (and since not every highly rated firm will advertise, you need to cast a wide net). It has expensive print distribution costs. It also needs a professional advertising salesforce. Moreover, EBSCO is hardly an established consumer brand. But none of this means EBSCO can’t succeed; it just means EBSCO will need to work hard to succeed. And business success that doesn’t come fast and easy usually defines the businesses that are the most successful of all.

 

Monetizing Mediocrity

I laughed out loud while reading a recent Bloomberg article describing how Apple has a secret team hard at work to improve search in Apple’s App Store. Key to this initiative: finding a way to introduce paid search so that app developers can pay to come up first in search results. Oh yes, as a secondary objective, this secret team is also “trying to improve the way customers browse in the App Store.” Note that they’re improving browsing, not search!

Yes, the App Store, which the article correctly notes is a vital part of Apple’s business, urgently needs to be better monetized. Better functionality? Maybe, they’ll look at that too.

The App Store is a case study in bad design and a bad user experience. My sense is that it was created with the notion that users would primarily browse for apps of interest. But with 1.5 million apps and only 25 categories, you better have a lot of time to kill if that’s the way you want to find new apps.

Search is even worse. It starts with the well-hidden search box. Start typing in a word, and the search software will helpfully suggest phrases. But if you click on one of these search phrases, more often than not, you’ll come up with no results. Further, Apple seemingly permits companies to stuff their entries with the names of competitive products too, so you have to be extremely careful what apps you download, something I discussed in an earlier post.

Searching in the App Store is incredibly literal too. Apparently, concepts like wildcars or Soundex or even relevancy eluded Apple’s celebrated designers. In almost every respect, Apple appears to have succeeded in spite of itself.

Besides serving as a useful case study of how not to build an online store, business information companies need to consider how this impacts their products and digital strategies. Most business information companies distribute their apps through the App Store. It’s important not to take for granted that they will be found. Try searching for your own app in the App Store using common searches your typical user might try. I can pretty much guarantee you’ll be disappointed if not shocked by the results. Saying “download our app from the App Store” is unfortunately not enough direction for users. Also, spending some time to really think through your App Store listing is absolutely time well spent.

You should also keep an eye out for scammy apps that may be presenting themselves in confusingly similar ways in the App Store. Apple doesn’t seem to care, but you may be losing business to other app developers that don’t have your user’s best interests as heart, and this could ultimately reflect back on you. There are a stunning number of apps that seem to be gaming the system.

Apple’s planned solution to App Store search seems to be not to improve it, but to charge money for you to get the results you would expect to get if its search functionality worked properly. And much as I hate to say it, it may be worth paying up, because digital adoption starts with your users getting their hands on your app, and Apple is making that incredibly and unnecessarily difficult to do.