Massive data-sharing may lead to mom-like services

For those willing to opt-in, information sharing may offer a brave new world

Imagine you're driving toward smoke still distant on the horizon. A message arrives on your smart phone alerting you to traffic backups and the possibility that smoke and pollutants could affect your allergies. Warned, you change your driving route and avoid the problem.

The company, probably your insurance provider, that sent this message knows your location and health history. And that's just part of it. It may be tracking and analyzing your investments and credit card spending. Your medical information, cholesterol level, weight and prescriptions may be routinely monitored as well.

In short, this company may know more about you than your mom.

Is this far fetched? No. It's the kind of thing that people attending IBM's Information on Demand conference heard and talked about. Many at the conference are building data marts and warehouses and integrating systems to create vast pools of data that will make this type of information sharing possible.

The massive amount of readily available data will be used to create new products, some of which will rely on customers' willingness to share their most personal data, said James Bisker, an IBM global insurance industry leader. Among the new products is a personal risk manager, which uses a customer's data to provide everything from investment advice to traffic warnings.

"You can't own a company today without having risk management," Bisker said. "Why not make that individually available?"

This may sound reasonable, but even at this IBM conference devoted to information usage, not everyone was comfortable with the idea of sharing so much personal information, even if it means lower insurance rates.

"It also means you can get worse rates if you share that data," said Michael Key, a mainframe programmer and systems analyst at Volvo Information Technology, a subsidiary of Sweden-based Volvo.

Key said most people will be reluctant to share their most detailed personal information, partly out of fear of identity theft but also because of an innate feeling among Americans to protect their privacy. He said he worries that his information ultimately won't be used for his benefit.

The kind of service that Bisker describes is years away. Many companies are still in the process of assembling their data and using it to improving their businesses, optimizing their processes and enhancing customer relationships.

That's what Vivien Fong, the senior vice president and CIO of The Co-operators Group insurance, described in one session at the conference. The company didn't have good data on its customers because it was spread among multiple applications, inconsistent and there were duplicate records. If addresses and names were slightly off, "Bill Smith" versus "William Smith," for example, the company may not have been able to tell that one Smith had purchased two separate products.

Fong's Guelph, Ontario-based company developed a customer data hub to create a single view for each of its 1 million customers using IBM's WebSphere Customer Data Center. The IBM product was picked in part because of its service-oriented architecture capabilities.

Fong said Co-operators now has the capability, for instance, of looking at all the policies in a household. The company has also streamlined some of its processes. For instance, it needed 20 people assigned to its "split" and "merge" area -- handling policies of people who were either getting married or divorced. It can now accomplish that work with five employees.

This connecting of information and creation of a single customer view also makes it possible for the business to probe its information systems for a better understanding of its customers, said Rhonda Uttam, a vice president at JP Morgan Chase Bank and the technology director in charge of its data warehouse. Before that work was completed, seeking an answer to a question from the data was not an easy task and a research project might have focused on answering one question. Now, "they don't stop at the simple question," she said.

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