What Happens to the Data


Metromile offers per-mile car insurance based on an OBD II device that plugs into the car and reports data about how the vehicle is used to the insurance company. This raises questions about where the data goes, how it's used, and who owns it. Even more important, it's a business model that promotes the creation of data silos.

Silos de Trigueros

Nathan Schor pointed me at an article about Metromile that appeared in TechCrunch recently. Metromile is a per-mile insurance company that uses a OBD II device that you plug in your car. It tracks your vehicle stats, similar to Fuse, Automatic, and other connected car services.

The kicker is that it's free because Metromile is making money by selling per-mile insurance. The more users they have using their device the bigger their potential market for selling insurance. That is made evident by the fact that you can only get the free device if you live in a state where they offer insurance (currently CA, OR, and IL). Otherwise, get in line (until they come to your state, presumably).

I don't know how Metromile is implemented, but I wonder what happens to the data. I'm pretty sure they're using a cellular device (rather than Bluetooth) so that the data is always transmitted to their system even if your phone's not in the car or connected. Does all the data about every trip go to the insurance company? Or some aggregation? What's the algorithm?

These questions are relevant because it's unclear who ultimately owns this data. Users aren't paying for the device or the data, just the insurance. As I wrote in The CompuServe of Things, business models that connect devices to non-substituable services threaten to leave users with little control over the things they own and use.

I believe users ought to be customers who own the data and control where and how it's used. That doesn't mean they can't choose to share it with the insurance company, but they ought to know what's being shared and even be able to substitute one insurance company for another. If every connected car device is associated with a different insuarance company, I can't switch without having to give up access to all the data that's been collected about my car and driving.

Data silos with murky policies about data ownership are all too common. Unfortunately, they lead to a future I don't want to live in. And if you think about it, I'll bet you won't want to live there either.