As data becomes a commodity, Terbine wants to trade in it

There are already billions of things or processes in the world that generate data. Currently, a very small percentage of these collect and store those data points, and then a further small percentage currently analyses the gathered data. Despite there being huge potential benefits to be realized from crunching the information, it simply isn’t easy enough to make it a thoughtless process.

But that future is not far away, and when it is, data will be a commodity that will be traded just as oil or goods are today. Startup Terbine is hoping to be one of the early data traders, by building a marketplace and trading platform specifically for data generated in IoT projects.

After finishing a round of seed funding from the Incapture Group, CEO David Knight spoke to Gigaom, to discuss the company’s plans. Knight admitted that Terbine was looking at everything from billboards to satellites as potential sources of sensor data – which could be used to provide insight into the physical world, for a price of course.

If Terbine can successfully secure this data, it stands to construct a comprehensive set of databases that can collate weather patterns, consumer purchasing trends, traffic routes, footfall, livestock movements, ambient environmental settings in buildings, the average air pressure in a fleet of vehicles – the list’s potential scope is massive, but only if Terbine can bring the data to the table.

Terbine would make its money acting as the middleman; sourcing and packaging the data and taking a slice of each transaction. Knight told Gigaom that he envisions a “market-like approach to access, where some data might be free, but most would be priced based on how timely it is, how rare it is or how relevant it is at any given time.”

The biggest hurdles that a business plan like this has to overcome, aside from the logistical challenge of attempting to collate the world’s data, is the regulatory provisions made in the name of data protection. Wherever individual are involved, there will be privacy concerns – especially if the data is too granular.

For instance, if a set of deployed sensors on lamp posts were able to track cell phones as they walked past, could the data collected by that be used to identify a person – based on the model of phone, the phone’s unique identification numbers, the time of day, the geographical location of sensors? How easily could you track down a person if you merged two or more data sets?

Anonymizing the data will be key to addressing these sorts of concerns, but there will come a point where the information greatly diminishes in value. Being able to track the footfall of big-spending customers in a city is valuable to marketers looking to advise clients on where to build a new store or where to install advertising – but that data could be used to nefarious ends by identifying the high-value targets and stealing from their homes while they are at work.

And that’s just considering data that might be sensitive at the individual level. In the wake of the ongoing Sony hacking crisis, it wouldn’t surprise us if companies that signed up to a program like this could unwittingly expose themselves to an attack by broadcasting their vulnerabilities (such as network architecture and equipment) to the world.

So clearing the regulation and red tape will be a priority for Terbine and any other company that hopes to trade in data. Incentivizing businesses to share their data should be simple enough if you can guarantee them new sources of revenue for data they already generate – as long as they can be assured that a lawsuit won’t arise to sting them down the road. And while there is a lot of work ahead, from what can be gleaned from Terbine’s stealth-mode secrecy, it could be the first in a wave of data-traders that are facilitated by the IoT.