How can Facebook solve its privacy crisis? Just ask Otis Elevator

You’d be hard-pressed to think of two terms that have captured the tech zeitgeist more than “big data” and “data privacy”. So what do they have to do with a 160-year-old machine?

Firstly, you might ride this humble box several times a day without realizing its significant contribution to urban life. The elevator was a transformative technology that ushered in the era of the modern city and made skyscrapers possible. 

Like any technology, its evolution over time has had ups and downs, but the advancements made in its history can teach us some important things:

  1. Focus on building trust through action, not communication.

When the first passenger elevators were introduced in the early-to-mid-nineteenth century, the rate of adoption was slow. After all, there was always the risk a cable would snap, plunging the elevator and all its occupants to their possible deaths. “Thanks, but I’ll take the stairs,” was likely the common rejoinder at the time.

The makers of elevators could have dismissed them as one-off incidents, or showed how statistically rare elevator-related injuries and fatalities were. But it wouldn’t have mattered as people simply didn’t feel safe getting in there.

What really changed people’s perception was a critical safety feature that was first demonstrated by Elisha Otis at a world’s fair in New York. As detailed in the book Lifted: A Cultural History of the Elevator, the American inventor stood on a platform high above the audience when the only rope holding it up was cut with an ax on his orders. The safety mechanism kicked in immediately, preventing the platform from plummeting to the ground. 

After this, public confidence in elevators soared, particularly in Otis’ safety elevators. He became inundated with orders, which doubled every year. 

It’s a crucial lesson to social media and tech companies that the elevator pitch for their technology matters less than than their ‘elevator moment’. Most will pay lip service to the notion of privacy, without demonstrating the tangible and practical steps they’re taking to ensure the safety of users’ data. Any organization dealing with personal data needs to plan for worst case scenarios and prepare for them appropriately by having safeguards in place. Only then can they truly protect individual privacy and earn consumer trust. 

2. What seems like an obstacle now will be a pivotal opportunity in hindsight.

When GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) was first introduced, many companies viewed it as a hurdle to overcome. How could they now monetize their data or personalize their marketing? 

It helps to take a step back into a time when elevators were still manually controlled by an operator. Sitting in an elevator to press buttons all day was an actual paying job. Then, in the 1950s came automatic elevators that didn’t need human operators, though there was just one little problem: People hated them. 

As a professor of architectural history tells The Globe and Mail, there are “stories of people walking into elevators and walking back out”. In fact, it took a good part of a decade for the technology to become commonplace and for people to get used to it.

It seems laughable now, the idea that people didn’t see it as their job to push a button and simply felt uncomfortable doing so. But aren’t we going to also look back at this era, when companies regard privacy regulations as a demanding obstacle, with incredulity? 

After all, GDPR and the growing wave of legislation worldwide should be seen as a watershed moment for businesses. This is a turning point for marketers to stop microtargeting with personal data when there is a wealth of other types of data at their disposal that can be used to generate relevant and effective content. 

There are many ways to personalize marketing without the use of personal data. For instance, there is what GDPR categorizes as pseudonymous data (data that can’t be used to directly identify an individual) like the customer’s local weather. Is it more relevant for a brand to bombard a customer with ads for umbrellas because he viewed them once, or to offer an umbrella to everyone living within a particular area on a rainy day? Does a brand have to know about your allergies, or can it use available pollen count data by geographic region?

Companies simply need to ‘push the button’ and stop seeing compliance as a chore. Instead, they need to embrace data privacy as a valuable opportunity to build trust and use non-personal data more creatively. 

3. Fast and reliable data makes it possible to predict things before they happen.

The elevator has come a pretty long way since Otis brought it into the mainstream. They have not only gotten better, faster, safer – but also a lot smarter. 

On the surface, elevators may not seem to have changed much over the last decades. In reality, the technology that keeps them moving smoothly is cutting-edge. AI and real-time data are being used by major elevator manufacturers for predictive maintenance – so they can spot problems before they arise and better anticipate breakdowns. For instance, ThyssenKrupp’s elevators are connected to the cloud, collecting data from its sensors, and transforming that data into actionable analytics. 

KONE has a similar system that incorporates IBM’s Watson IoT. Using data points transmitted by elevators across the world, KONE can glean historic failure rates of different elevator parts and the preceding conditions. For example, a temperature reading that’s slightly above normal could be a sign of engine trouble, but the system can also note if it’s a hot day, which could be a factor too. Its forecasting also improves as more data is fed into the model. 

Similarly, faster access to better data is needed to make critical business or investment decisions. Relying on traditional sources of information like earnings, filings and economic reports is akin to elevator manufacturers depending on written maintenance records. 

But why wait 90 days for a quarterly report when one can access a steady stream of intelligent data? New sources of information, or what we call alternative data, are constantly generated around us and investment managers can leverage them to get an unprecedented level of transparency into company performance on a near real-time basis.

From anonymized transaction data to price trackers, these can be used to generate predictive insights so proactive decisions can be made, instead of mere reactions to events as they occur. For investors, that can help them forecast market movements and trends, and manage risk. 

To sum it up, businesses and investors need to use data and privacy as the vehicle of change, much as the elevator was once upon a time.


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