March 8, 2016
Competing in an Age of Data Symmetry
It used to be that companies could develop proprietary information and, thus, a sustainable competitive advantage. Not for long.
For centuries, people have lived in a world where data was largely proprietary, creating asymmetry. Some had it. Others did not. Information was a currency. Some organizations held it, and profited from it. We are now entering an era of tremendous data balance — a period of data symmetry that will rewrite how companies differentiate themselves.
The factors that move the world toward data symmetry are time, markets, investment and disruption.
Consider maps and the data they contained. Not long ago, paper maps, travel books and documentaries offered the very best views of geographic locations. Today, Google allows us to cruise nearly any street in America and get a 360° view of homes, businesses and scenery. Electronic devices guide us along the roadways and calculate our ETA. A long-established map company such as Rand McNally now has to compete with GPS up-and-comers, selling “simple apps” with the same information. They all have access to the same data. When it comes to the symmetry of geographic data, the Earth is once again flat.
Data symmetry is rewriting business rules across industries and markets every day. Insurance is just one industry where it is on the rise. For insurers to overcome the new equality of data access, they will need to understand both how data is becoming symmetrical and how they can re-envision their uniqueness in the market.
It will be helpful to first understand how data is moving from asymmetrical to symmetrical.
Let’s use claims as an example. Until now, the insurer’s best claims data was found in its own stockpile of claims history and demographics. An insurer that was adept at managing this data and applied actuarial science would find itself in a better position to assess risk. Competitively, it could rise to the top of the pack by pricing appropriately and acquiring appropriately.
Today, all of that information is still very relevant. However, in the absence of that information, an insurer could also rely upon a flood of data streams coming from other sources. Risk assessment is no longer confined to historical data, nor is it confined to answers to questions and personal reports. Risk data can be found in areas as simple as cell phone location data — an example of digital exhaust.
Digital exhaust as a source of symmetry
Digital exhaust is the data trail that all of us leave on the digital landscape. Recently, the New York City Housing Authority wished to determine if the “named” renter was the one actually living in a rent-controlled apartment. A search of cell phone tower location records, cross-referenced to a renter’s information, was able to establish the validity of renter occupation. That is just one example of digital exhaust data being used as a verification tool.
Another example can be found in Google’s Waze app. Because I use Waze, Google now holds my complete driving history — a telematics treasure trove of locations, habits, schedules and preferences. The permissions language allows Waze to access my calendars and contacts. With all of this, in conjunction with other Google data sets, Google can create a fairly complete picture of me. This, too, is digital exhaust. As auto insurers are proving each day, cell phone data may be more informative to proper pricing than previous claims history. How long is it until auto insurers begin to look at location risk, such as too much time spent in a bar or frequent driving through high-crime ZIP codes? If ZIP codes matter for where a car is parked each night, why wouldn’t they matter for where it spends the day?
Data aggregators as a source of symmetry
In addition to digital exhaust, data aggregators and scoring are also flattening the market and bringing data symmetry to markets. Mortgage lenders are a good example from outside the industry. Most mortgage lenders pay far more attention to comprehensive credit scores than an individual’s performance within their own lending operation. The outside data matters more than the inside data, because the outside data gives a more complete picture of the risk, compiled from a greater number of sources.
Within insurance, we can find a dozen or more ways that data acquisition, consolidation and scoring is bringing data symmetry to the industry. Quest Diagnostics supplies scored medical histories and pharmaceutical data to life insurers — any of whom wish to pay for it. RMS, AIR Worldwide, EQECAT and others turn meteorological and geographical data into shared risk models for P&C insurers.
That kind of data transformation can happen in nearly any stream of data. Motor vehicle records are scored by several agencies. Health data streams could also be scored for life and health insurers. Combined scores could be automatically evaluated and placed into overall scores. Insurers could simply dial up or dial down their acceptance based on their risk tolerance and pricing. Data doesn’t seem to stay hidden. It has value. It wants to be collected, sold and used.
Consider all the data sources I will soon be able to tap into without asking any questions. (This assumes I have permissions, and barring changes in regulation.)
- Real-time driving behavior.
- Travel information.
- Retail purchases and preferences.
- Mobile statistics.
- Exercise or motion metrics.
- Household or company (internal) data coming from connected devices.
- Household or company (external) data coming from geographic databases.
These data doors, once opened, will be opened for all. They are opening on personal lines first, but they will open on commercial lines, as well.
Now that we have established that data symmetry is real, and we see how it will place pressure upon insurers, it makes sense to look at how insurers will use data and other devices to differentiate themselves. In Part 2 of this blog, we’ll look at how this shift in data symmetry is forcing insurers to ask new questions. Are there ways they can expand their use of current data? Are there additional data streams that may be untapped? What does the organization have or do that is unique? The goal is for insurers to innovate around areas of differentiation. This will help them rise above the symmetry, embracing data’s availability to re-envision their uniqueness.