Source Data’s True Worth


In my discussion of the Internet of Things (IoT) a few weeks back, I mentioned that there was a big push underway to put sensors in farm fields to collect and monitor soil conditions as a way to optimize fertilizer application, planting dates, etc. But who would be the owner of this information, which everyone in agriculture believes to be exceedingly valuable? Apparently, this is far from decided. An association of farmers, The Farm Bureau, recently testified in Congress that it believes that farmers should have control over this data, and indeed should be paid for providing access to it.

We’ve heard this notion advanced in many different contexts over the past few years. Many consumer advocates maintain that consumers should be compensated by third parties who are accessing their data and generating revenue from it.

Generally, this push for compensation centers on the notion of fairness, but others have suggested it could have motivational value as well: if you offer to pay consumers to voluntarily supply data, more consumers will supply data.

The notion of paying for data certainly makes logical sense, but does it work in practice? Usually not.

The first problem with paying to collect data on any scale is that it is expensive. More times than not, it’s just not an economical approach for the data publisher. And while the aggregate cost is large, the amount an individual typically receives is somewhere between small and tiny which really removes its motivational value.

The other issue (and I’ve seen this first-hand) is the perception of value. Offer someone $1 for their data, and they immediately assume it is worth $10. True, the data is valuable, but only once aggregated. Individual data points in fact aren’t worth very much at all. But try arguing this nuance to the marketplace. It’s hard.

I still get postal mail surveys with the famous “guilt dollar” enclosed. This is a form of paying for data, but it drives, as noted, off guilt, which means undependable results. Further, these payments are made to assure an adequate aggregate response: whether or not you in particular respond to the survey really doesn’t matter. It’s a different situation for, say, a data publisher trying to collect retail store sales data. Not having data from Wal-Mart really does matter.

Outside of the research world, I just haven’t seen many successful examples of data publishers paying to collect primary source data. When a data publisher does feel a need to provide an incentive, it’s almost always in the form of some limited access to the aggregated data. That makes sense because that’s when the data becomes most valuable: once aggregated. And supplying users with a taste of your valuable data often results in them purchasing more of it from you.

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