The Mine! Project

open source project for online data and relationships logistics

Mine! insurance story

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Not the most thrilling heading, I grant you, but being able to manage your insurance is not to be sniffed at. This is also the first in a series of scenarios, or Mine! stories, about how the Mine! could be used for specific uses. Some scenarios won’t be realised until vendors come on board and this is obviously one of them. That said, the Mine! is first and foremost for the user and works independently of vendors, platforms and third-parties.

So I am looking for some home insurance. I already have in the Mine! information about the belongings in my house to be covered or I input them – I can add descriptions, upload photos, links etc. I include my postcode and any essential information insurers need to quote. Then I create a feed from the Mine! containing that data. This feed would be specific to each insurer even if the information contained within is identical. That way I will be able to cut that feed off without disrupting feeds to others. Then I drop the feed URL into a field on insurer’s website and get a quote.[1]

Big assumption alert: Insurers will have added a field to their sites, and the way they extract the information is similar to you filling in a form, the difference being that you are choosing what data you share. I know better than trying to get vendors to change their system at this stage but with sufficient usage and incentive, this should be possible. The Mine! starts from the user, not the vendor.

The insurance companies respond. I choose the quote best for me and provides the insurer with my identity details needed to complete the transaction and whatever other personal data is required to establish a relationship. I can do this by updating the original ‘quote’ feed – this would be done by adding more objects or tags to the feed – or by generating an entirely new one. That will depend on the user preference and own data management.

The feed the insurer is given will provide updates about any changes to the shared data – contents, address, other relevant information. These can be used for timely policy amendments to avoid being uninsured or underinsured as well as for renewal quotes.

The insurance company benefits as they now have a direct connection with me, the customer, with a flow of potentially useful data that would be hard to obtain otherwise. The higher quality of data is inferred from the motivation behind it – I maintain data in the Mine! for my own purposes and needs – which seems a reason more powerful than anything else. And finally, the direct relationship cuts out the brokers, which is something that most insurers would like to see at least in the areas where insurance coverage has been commoditised.

The customer wins because he gets a deal more closely tailored to his needs and circumstances, cheaper insurance (brokers are often used to put together lists of items and the average fee paid to brokers for such service is £50+), reduces the hassle of re-insuring and avoids underinsurance when something does go wrong.

Over time, there would be other areas of improvement and impact. Better rating due to higher quality or relevance of data, better customer relationship, less paperwork. I realise I am veering into the utopia here, especially when it comes to insurance but one can but hope…

Similar scenarios could apply to any insurance products and services where details from the customer are essential to the quote and/or brokers and intermediaries are pushing out insurers from a direct relationship.

[1] Here is Alec’s ‘translation’ or elaboration of the process for the more technical amongst us, based on the current Mine! functionality.

So I am looking for some home insurance. I already have in the Mine! information about the belongings in my house to be covered or I input them – I can add descriptions, upload photos, links etc. [ALL THIS DATA GETS LINKED INTO AN "ENVELOPE" OBJECT THAT SAVES YOU HAVING TO GO AN RE-TAG IT SPECIFICALLY FOR THE PURPOSE OF INSURANCE] I include my postcode and any essential information insurers need to quote. Then I create a feed from the Mine! containing that data [IE: CONTAINING THE "ENVELOPE" OBJECT WHICH DRAGS ALL THE OTHER DATA IN ITS WAKE]. This feed would be specific to each insurer even if the information contained within is identical. [PERSONALLY I WOULD DESCRIBE THIS AS "DROP THE ENVELOPE INTO THE FEED FOR EACH INSURER"] That way I will be able to cut that feed off without disrupting feeds to others. Then I ["THE USER"] drop the feed URL into a field on insurer’s website and get a quote.

Timeless mind

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By ‘augmenting human intellect’ we mean increasing the capability of a man to approach a complex problem situation, to gain comprehension to suit his particular needs, and to derive solutions to problems. Increased capability in this respect is taken to mean a mixture of the following: more-rapid comprehension, better comprehension, the possibility of gaining a useful degree of comprehension in a situation that previously was too complex, speedier solutions, better solutions, and the possibility of finding solutions to problems that before seemed insoluble. And by ‘complex situations’ we include the professional problems of diplomats, executives, social scientists, life scientists, physical scientists, attorneys, designers – whether the problem exists for twenty minutes or twenty years. We do not speak of isolated clever tricks that help in particular situations. We refer to a way of life in an integrated domain where hunches, cut-and-try, intangibles, and the human ‘feel for a situation’ usefully co-exist with powerful concepts, streamlined terminology and notation, sophisticated methods, and high-powered electronic aids.

Opening paragraph of Doug Engelbart’s paper: Augmenting Human Intellect: A conceptual framework

Streams

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This resonates:

So when you think of digital presence – the online shadow of your physical/spiritual presence – how would you best want to represent that? The emergence of streams in our digital lives is, in many ways, aligning our thinking in a way that we are only subtly appreciating. I see this every time I overhear someone trying to explain Twitter to another. There’s futility in writing straplines and elevator pitches for something that is quite fundamental to the way we experience life.

Greg of Social Twisters then talks of finding the best web services that helps up build and run our own real-time personas online.


* Who – Facebook? LinkedIn?
* What – Twitter? Pownce?
* When – Upcoming? Socializr?
* Where – BrightKite? Dodgeball?
* How – Qik? Seesmic? Blogs?

All those are useful, I use most of them. I want the functionality they provide. But I also want to retain my data and use it in ways that they can’t. In other words, I want somewhere where I keep my data and functionality comes to me, rather then me giving up my data in exchange for functionality. Then I will become the source of the streams that reflect my identity, aspect of life and relationships.

A metaphor for the Mine!

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Revisiting this interview with Ze Frank on The Sound of Young America programme, this bit caught my attention (about 23 minutes into the video). Ze’s quote from the interview:

What’s holding the web back in some sort of way is a metaphor that people use for it, which is as a play space. You go to Flickr to look at your Flickr photos, but the real strength right now is real distribution of media. If you distribute media intensely and fully, then place can’t really be the dominant metaphor anymore. This idea of creating play spaces that are mediated by personalities in some sort of way, that you can move fluidly and play a game inside Google street view and then move out to another space and things like that was an opportunity to play with breaking [the metaphor] down a little bit.

Metaphors are very important and I have used a fair share over the years trying to get people understand the nature of the web, blogging, online communications, social networking, identity, VRM… Now I’d like to find one for the Mine!.

The closest I got so far is describing the Mine! as a car. Your own car on the web, not rented or confined to a parking lot or occasionally let out on a race track. This comes from describing social networks such as Facebook or MySpace as similar to a parking lot at driving school.

Networking on Facebook, MySpace and other silos is like taking driving lessons. There is no recognisable direction. It seems kind of pointless unless you know that it is just learning and practising. Facebooks and MySpace seems a lot like that to me. But once people work out how to drive, how to operate the machine and how to get from point A to point B, they will be able to decide what the B is and get around on their own. And that’s when the real fun starts.

So the Mine! is an attempt to give people their own car, getting them to decide where they go with it, how fast and who they take along as passangers. They will have to look after it a bit and perhaps learn to maintain it but that will be easier with time too. It is an alternative for networked and social existence on the web for those ready and willing to break out of silos.

Live Web revisited

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Let’s go back in history. 5 years ago Doc Searls wrote about the World Live Web. At the time, social web was forming in the hands of bloggers, no social networks, micro-blogging or some such.

…we’ve been limited in our understanding of the Web, and of the Net, by the real estate metaphors we use to make sense of it: site, address, location, home, delivery… Even commons. Those are all necessary yet insufficient to a full understanding of what the Web is for.

Yes, the Web is a place. Sure. But what do we do there? Is it just a place to put up sites? A place where we store and forward messages and publications to each other? Or is it a place where life happens? Is it a place where we can truly live?

I find that our understanding of the web is still limited – we build platforms and silos instead of living of the distributed magic of the net.

I was happy with using social web to describe the blogosphere, wikis, feeds, tagging. And then social networking arrived… Proliferating silos each extracting their pound of flesh from their users in the form of profiles and activities that lock data into a platform or a format and cannot be exported or used elsewhere.

Last time I saw Doc was two weeks in Boston and we talked about Live Web again. Here is what he blogged about it recently:

The Live Web isn’t just built. It grows, adapts and changes. It’s an environment where we text and post and author and update and tweet and syndicate and subscribe and notify and feed and — and yell and fart and say wise things and set off alarms and keep each other scared, safe or both. It’s verbs to the Static Web’s nouns. It is, in a biological word that has since gone technical, generative.

I explained that the Mine! is and has always been predicated on the Live Web. It is where people can be at their most empowered. And it is the best place for tools that would help them bypass platforms and lock-ins. The first time I mentioned this to Doc (and others) was at one of the IIW events in December 2007. I am glad to say we have come a long way since…

VRM brainstorm session at IIW

One of the outcomes of the meeting was connecting with a couple of geeks/coders willing to sit down and help to translate the vision of VRM personal data space into technical specs and hopefully a prototype to demonstrate what we have been trying to describe since the VRM brainstorming session at IIW in Mountain View last December.

Together with Alec we were able to do that with VRM feeds based data sharing, but now we need to move onto the lightweight tools for personal data capture, analysis and management (working name u-spot and after discussions last night likely to change to MINE. :) )

And I hasten to add that “Mine!” has been a much better choice of a name than u-spot. :)

Truly social software?

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When describing how the Mine! could help me manage my data better than the existing applications I use, one of the examples I describe is uploading photos to Flickr and trying to structure them.

Flickr is a flow of photos and I am not really in charge of how they are organised. For example, I have 100+ wine photos as part of my wine interest. If I upload all of them, that’s what people subscribing to my Flickr will see as they all appear in my Flickr stream. I have a choice of a couple of combinations of friends & family settings but that does not solve my problem: I may want some people to see the wine photos and I may not want others to be bored by a bunch of wine bottle shots. Some people may not be on Flickr, so the privacy settings don’t help.

On another occasion, I needed to share photos with my mother who is not on Flickr. It was a practical need – we went shopping together for items for her apartment and the photo set was meant to help her remember and decide what to buy and exchange notes and comments on the photos. I couldn’t make it work. I tried setting a new account for only those photos but there were too many for a free account and I didn’t feel like paying $24 for this simple use. I tried signing her up to Flickr, as a family contact, and uploading the photos with the family setting. This was awkward as I don’t necessarily want other contacts with the same privacy setting to see those photos or me being forced to change their status permanently…

I needed my own space, not just for communication or publishing but for my own notes for future reference. Then I also wanted to share it with those who might be interested in my wine photos or window-shopping.

I want two basic functionalities from the online tools, which help me organise my life and connect me with people. First, I want to capture and sort out my data, upload photos, take notes, cross-reference information, etc. For that I need applications that are more analytical than the current social media/web tools. Once I organise my stuff, I want to go on sharing it in ways that are more social than the current web 2.0 tools allow me to be.

But isn’t social networking all about being social? Not quite. At the moment, I don’t drive who gets to see what beyond simple decisions about who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’. Social interactions and relationships are far more granular than social networks allow them to be. Usually, this is seen as a privacy issues and results in a complicated access management e.g. Facebook privacy settings.

Why do we have our relationships pre-determined by others such as Facebook, Flickr, Plaxo etc.? Presumably to give us more ‘control’ over our social network and contacts in it. But how is lumping people into categories imposed by an application helping me to be social? By determining the types of relationships I am able to have – business contact or colleague, family or friend, I am not able to reflect relationships I already have. The best social software is not online, it is loaded on to my cortex. And no software can fully map the relationships, let alone replace our natural ability to create and maintain them.

Privacy is merely the other side of the coin of complexity in human relationships. My ‘privacy settings’ are inherent in my behaviour. My privacy policy should not be embedded in any software. In that sense, software cannot be social (or antisocial), though it can help me be more or less social. Software privacy settings limit my ability to be truly social i.e. capable of maintaining complex relationships and interactions with others – arguably the purpose of such tools.

The Mine! needs to satisfy both requirements of my online life – allow its users to organise data differently and support people’s relationships as defined by themselves.

Let’s deal with the data in this posting – I will do the privacy & relationships in a future one.

For some type of data a flow is just fine – e.g. Flickr, FriendFeed, PlaxoPulse, Facebook etc. Structure sometimes emerges – sets, rooms, groups. For other purposes I may need alternate data structures and new functionality to build them. A pool of tagged objects is a good start, it is flexible and not determining how the data is organised. The user who generates the data also owns the actual raw data, as opposed to its formatted representation – e.g. Facebook, Amazon reviews. There will therefore, be many more options how to manipulate them. (For more see Models of Data Imprisonment.)

Various ways of thinking about data structures…

  • created prior to data input as a skeleton for data with known or standard structures to be stored in later – perhaps medical or financial data or other complex data
  • created with input of new data – when you upload photos, you create sets; when you bookmark a link, you add tags and notes etc
  • created on retrieval – the hierarchy or structure emerges at click of button depending on what you are looking and on the flow or the dynamic of the data, e.g. I click on a tag in del.icio.us and get all articles tagged with it
  • shoe-horned into single vision – google reader and del.icio.us, pick your means of rendering – by tag, by who person, date, no tag at all
  • created from a pool of objects, with tags and meta-data, with functionality that helps you create whatever hierarchy you want

The Mine! needs to have a user-driven structure. Once the user has the option of putting the data under his ‘domain’ i.e. in the Mine!, he can create new data or import existing data. The user can then manipulate it; mash it up, trend it, analyse it, collage it. Extra functionality can come from application or plugins which will allow the data in the Mine! to be structured as the user sees fit.

A Mine! plugin would be a package of functionality that enables users to manage a particular topic or format of data. They can create groups or categories of their own, reflecting areas of interest – travel, restaurants, shopping, cars, wine, fashion, cosmetics, sport, etc. This would be not dissimilar to a scrapbook – not a hierarchy or a taxonomy but a patchwork of stuff that the owner of the scrapbook is interested in.

Hierarchy is often synonymous with order. A feature of hierarchy of information (taxonomy) is that it exists outside the user’s mind. The web has driven home the point that taxonomy is by far not the only order possible.

It is all very well to insist on user-driven structure, but where is the convenience if users have to determine not only the data flows but their underlying structure? To flip the way we tend to think – from the user’s point of view, the structure doesn’t have to precede the data. Emergent order is more user-friendly in the long run – think folksonomies and tags vs. directories and folders. In order words, complexity should come from usage, not design.

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