Today is Privacy Day!

Almost 20 years ago some colleagues and I edited a book with the inviting title, Computer Assisted Information Collection. Experts on a wide variety of computer-assisted methods contributed the chapters and I was tasked with writing the last chapter, a look into the future of technology and survey research. At the risk of tooting my own horn, I did a decent job of imagining the data rich world that we still believe is our future and worried what it would mean for surveys. My colleagues, all good friends, argued that while all those personal data might exist out there in cyberspace, public privacy concerns and supporting legislation would restrict our access to them.

Over the last five years I have had roughly that same argument on and off with numerous colleagues in MR, mostly taking the side of my friends back in the 1990s. I think it is now clear to all of us that Facebook did not redefine privacy, and ongoing public concerns about the use of personal data collected online and evolving regulatory frameworks will have a major impact on what we can and cannot do in market, opinion, and social research.

I am reminded of this because today is Privacy Day, at least in Europe. Its purpose is to alert consumers to the risks they face and to educate them about how to control the disclosure and use of their personal data. I think this is a good thing for us as researchers and here is why.

Cooperation is the elephant in the room every time we talk about what might be possible as technology becomes increasingly intertwined with the activities of our daily lives. Research requests are one-on-one conversations with potential participants and a key element of those conversations must include assurances about how their personal data will be used and protected. That conversation is easier when both parties share a common understanding about the risks and the steps that must be taken to mitigate them. The more the public understands about responsible data protection practices, the better off we all are.

Of course, this also depends on researchers understanding and meeting their responsibilities, both in terms of longstanding ethical principles and current legislative frameworks. In this researchers also require some education.

Today ESOMAR has done its part by releasing a Data Protection Checklist that sets out the key principles that form the foundation of data protection laws worldwide. It is a very practical document developed by a small group of experts from around the world. It is a ‘must read’ for all of us. Doing the right thing is more important now than ever before.



The Mosaic of Global Research

Last week I attended the much-retooled CASRO Global Conference in Miami. The event was co-sponsored by CASRO and ARIA, the Americas Research Industry Alliance. There were around 100 attendees and the program seemed to me to be stronger than in previous years.

Day 1 was interesting. The highlight for me was a presentation by Simon Chadwick on what I would call the business side of MR. He described the evolution of international MR that has culminated in an industry structure in which a very small group of large global companies dominate. Using what Simon called "an imperial strategy" these firms have planted their flags in countries all over the world and, on the face of it at least, are positioned to conduct research anywhere on behalf of the multinationals that comprise the heart of the industry's client base. The driving force behind this strategy has been the emergence of a global/consuming middle class, first in North America, Europe and Japan, then the BRICs and now emerging market countries worldwide. Within 10 years we can expect that 90% of the global middle class will be outside of North America and Europe. The question Simon posed was whether the imperial strategy will work in that future.

He suspects not. Two key developments to be reckoned with are (1) the growth of multinationals outside of the US and Europe and (2) the emergence of new data collection modalities with the global infrastructure to support them. The former is especially important as the percentage of MR work being contracted out of the US and Europe declines while increasing in countries where multinationals like Tata and Lenovo are headquartered. In this context, regional MR firms may be able to compete successfully against the big global companies. And the continued increase of online, mobile, social media, etc. means that having feet on the ground is not as big an advantage as it once was. With the right set of partners it's now possible to conduct research pretty much anywhere in the world.

As this unfolds Simon sees two kinds of firms that are especially endangered: small companies and those with whose primary business is serving their domestic market.

I probably have not done justice to Simon's argument in this short post, but as he laid it out in its entirely it was quite compelling. And also refreshing. Market researchers are a paranoid bunch. When we gather at conferences we spend way too much time worrying about players from other industries (management consulting, business intelligence, social networks, etc.) coming into our space and eating our lunch. The prophets of doom are always with us, whether presenting at conferences or crying out in the blogosphere. Schlep Like the Flintstones character Schleprock we seem to carry around our own little rain clouds wherever we go. What I really liked about Simon's presentation is that it gave me a break from all of that. It was about what we must do as businesses, not the do or die methodology choices we absolutely must make before lunch. It's a different perspective on the industry and while it frankly is a little scary it is at least prescriptive and actionable. A welcome relief.

ISO 20252 – Market, opinion and social research

In December we were audited for ISO compliance. After a week of staff interviews, project reviews and records inspections we were certified to the 20252 standard. Iso Good for us!

Now I recognize that there are more than few people in the industry who think ISO certification is some kind of retro thing that does not reflect how much the industry is changing. More on that in a bit. But first let me say that when it's all said and done ISO 20252 comes down to four pretty basic things:

  1. Making sure that people know how to do their jobs and can succeed in the assignments we give them.
  2. Ensuring that everyone on a project team understands their individual roles, the roles of their colleagues and how to work as a team to produce great work for their client.
  3. Being completely transparent with clients about what was done and how it was done so that they can make whatever business decisions they need to make with confidence.
  4. Minimizing the mistakes that generate rework and disappoint clients while maximizing the chances of learning from those mistakes.

Now back to those folks who say that ISO is for the dinosaurs and out of place in the fast-moving world of contemporary market research. Or that all that process ISO insists on works against the innovation that is the supposed life blood of boutiques and startups. I think that's nonsense. A well-defined infrastructure of process and procedures need not be a barrier to change. In fact, it can make it easier. In Good to Great Jim Collins observes that in great companies people work within the framework of a highly developed system that fosters what he calls "a culture of discipline." When you have a culture of discipline you spend less time managing people and more time managing the system. And when change is called for you change the system, not the people. That's also what ISO brings you. I recommend it to you one and all.

Vendors say the darndest things

Today I got a promo piece from a global online panel vendor. On the front page they describe their offering as "high quality representative and validated panels in Brazil, Russia, India, China and now Mexico."  According to Internet World Stats the Internet penetration in these countries is 38%, 43%, 7%, 32%, and 27% respectively.  I renew my plea: let's ban the R word.

FTC vs. MR: A Fight to the Death?

That's at least what Quirk's email newsletter is telling me today. So what's the fuss? Something called the Best Practices Act (HR 5777), also known simply as "The Rush Bill." MRA has been sounding the alarm about this bill for some months now, and while I'm not a regular reader of Quirk's I gather that they've thrown in with the MRA. Their vision of the consequences of this bill passing are nothing short of apocalyptic, hence (I guess) the challenge to fight the FTC to the death!

Now I'm not a lawyer and I confess that I've not even read the whole bill. But I've talked to lawyers who have and they generally don't share this vision. What they tell me is that the privacy regulations it would put in place simply harmonize US privacy policy with that of the EU, a good thing for those of us doing global research. The main impact on research firms would to require a privacy policy that is akin to what firms who qualify for the US Safe Harbor program (and other certifications increasingly required by clients such as SAS-70) already have in place. In other words, it is just what it claims to be, a "best practices" law for privacy protection.

One forceful counter argument to what MRA and Quirk's are saying is the opinion offered by CASRO's legal counsel. Here I will quote just the conclusion:

While the market research industry can and should strive to improve the Bill, the Bill is a solid step forward to providing a needed comprehensive, federal privacy regime. The Bill will likely be deemed adequate by the European Union, thereby eliminating the need for the US Department of Commerce's Safe Harbor program and allowing US market research companies to more readily do business internationally. The Bill will also preempt and eliminate the confusing, expanding web of state privacy laws. Even in its current form, the obligations imposed should be not be unduly difficult for market research companies to comply with.

So the viewpoint here is that it's a good thing and will make life a lot easier, unless, of course, your privacy policy is in shambles.

As I said at the outset, I'm not a lawyer but others who are or who simply get a kick out of plowing through legislation like this generally agree with the CASRO viewpoint. And I also am not a regular Quirk's reader but I wonder if they are doing as good a job as they might reporting on both sides of this issue.