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CIOs consider putting a price tag on data

Kim S. Nash | June 24, 2014
Figure out the dollar value of your information assets. Then you'll know what the 'I' in CIO is really worth -- and how much to spend protecting it.

The Financial Times offers a handy online calculator to find out what your personal data is worth, if you can stand the insult. (The typical price is fractions of a penny per person. You're worth more—maybe half a buck—if you're moving or expecting a baby and, therefore, about to make big financial decisions.)

One enterprising grad student last year created a Kickstarter campaign to sell data about his online activities for $2 to $200, including the websites he visited, his GPS locations and his cursor movements. Also for sale: tools to analyze it all. "I've data-mined myself," Federico Zannier told potential customers. He ultimately made $2,733.

Individual pieces of corporate data, too, are worth something, according to Bob Schmidt, a data steward at Wells Fargo. Schmidt and colleague Jennifer Fisher applied for a patent in 2011 on a method for calculating that something. Key to the math is first quantifying the quality of the data.

One way they do that is by looking at how often a piece of data is used by employees or customers, assuming that frequent use indicates a vote of confidence. Other variables include accuracy, timeliness and security of the data. Freshly obtained and scrubbed consumer addresses, for example, would be much more valuable than old, undeliverable ones.

Schmidt declined to be interviewed, but the patent application makes clear his irritation with outdated ideas about the significance of corporate data. He talks, for example, about accounting regulations that treat the training of employees in how to use data better as a cost, with no offsetting measure of the value gained from people then working smarter, as bosses so often demand.

Without an established accounting rule for valuing it, data becomes invisible—a zero—in financial documents that are supposed to portray a company's true health. That can't be right. As the patent application notes, "This 'data is free' mentality stymies investment in quality data."

The patent description acknowledges that the Wells Fargo method isn't the only way to value information, but it provides "one or more valuations of data that can be useful for settling on a course of action." In other words, "Hey, at least we're trying."

In February, the bank hired its first chief data officer, reporting to the CIO.

Companies may not be in any rush to report the value of their information publicly. It's a source of power and market differentiation, so why tip off competitors? But pinpointing the value of data has some practical consequences internally. A company can more accurately value itself in a merger or acquisition. IT leaders can also make a better case for spending money on data security and privacy technology and personnel, says Ed Ferrara, an analyst at Forrester Research.


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