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Finding Grandmas

“Finding Grandmas” is my end of 2020 blog. It is unlike my blogs on getting to the cloud, or the gelato trilogy blogs of how you do it, who is doing it, and what can be done with it.

The Grandmas blog is about business ethics on who you are taking with you to the cloud and in what order. Certainly not every customer is equally ready to be digital, distanced, or observed, but who you intentionally ask first is your choice, as is who you ask last. Does having data have responsibility?

I tell this story through a historical analogy: mirroring the technology and occupational changes across my last 50 years compared to a similar yet perhaps more profound set of changes over the last 50 weeks. Know in advance, my grandmother raised me, and I have a soft spot for widows. Especially widows of veterans (though I was the first to serve in my family tree).

Have empathy for our neighbors, mothers, and their mothers, and the widows of great generations of veterans.

Have empathy for our gentleman friend widowers, and singles, couples, or family member mixes, and households of every combination, be they multi-generational family trees, non-traditional families, new immigration start-ups, or orphans at any age when they find themselves with no surviving family.

And generally, caregivers across the board, of any gender. It should not just be a pandemic holiday thought, but I would regret not making a moment here, lest we forget the unobserved, the data-less, the unmeasured, and at the same time, the unnamed long tenured who make up the bulk of many books of business. Today more than any day - where being distanced and less mobile may be a thriving constant for many of us.

I have a lifetime of experience making observations and can affirm that much of our most important data is missing in plain sight.

As a small-town paperboy many years ago (before many of my readers were born), my daily paper route introduced me to households and businesses of every kind. You never know who wants to stay connected, but back then a newspaper subscription was one key observational data point.

I was the personalized and preference-based mobility linking function making bespoke home deliveries, by bike or on foot, of timely and semi-perishable, pre-ordered goods across an active ecosystem (my small town). Every customer had a spot where they expected their paper to be in any weather circumstance at typical time windows on weekdays and weekends. Lots of opportunities existed for delight or disappointment. Missing or late papers were not common. Quiet customers were good customers, until tip time.

Grey-scale televisions (aka black and white broadcast cathode ray tube receiver boxes), some with rooftop adjustable metal antenna, were becoming commonplace and hardwired phones with shareable party lines and expensive long-distance calls were in most dwellings and businesses (except perhaps farms and some small businesses). Inconceivable for millennials and Gens X to Z, but you can imagine the utility of a newspaper in this historical setting.

In my community, there was no personalized mail delivery – you had a box for a fee at the community post office or went as "will call" there during the short hours when they were staffed.

The only air traffic was Dover Air Force Base – the largest morgue of the Vietnam War – whose flightpath noise cancelled conversations as the C-5 Galaxy fleet blared overhead, and whose noise footprint would be heard differentially as telephone callers took turns letting it pass their side of a conversation.

As a non-employee independent agent of both daily papers in the area, I had monopolistic distribution and full location intelligence at every doorstep – none, State News, Journal, or both. (Small-town Delaware today is much the same as when I left it decades ago: "Hi Joe” ;-) )

As an independent operator in the pre-Internet gig economy, I could observe cooperative community data like car ownership, number of vehicles, age of vehicles, number of occupants, age of occupants, number of drivers, number of retirees, home ownership, type of dwelling, size of dwelling, size of property, occupancy, occupation, kind, quality, and condition of vehicles, dwelling, and properties, along with the same data for every property and asset visible in the area. Same for dogs and cats. Same for business foot traffic, sales activity, onsite employee headcount, and inventory. Lots of other things were obvious, too, but had nothing to do with my paper route business.

And for subscribing customers, I could give you a good idea of the interior conditions and contents for most customer buildings (consumers and businesses), since many would invite me inside on rainy, snowy, and blustery days – especially as they scurried around the house/office looking for loose change on collection day. In many of those moments, conversation would drift into memories of family members past, present, and on the way, and inevitably the goings on of the day. Life events and the weather were always topical fare. Sounds a little like other agent-based businesses.

Ten cents a day and 25 on Sundays, separately or with a bundled discount, made me carry a coin changer on my route, but the convenience of the customer and the friction of billing was an experience best done inside the door during snowy, windy, and icy conditions. No one had air conditioning, so on hot days they would usually come outside if they had shade near the door. The "last inch" of distribution, and billing, and collection was a linking function between content, customer, and context, but in some cases lacked convenience for sure and opened avenues of friction and time dependencies for interacting. Also, sounds a little like other agent-based businesses.

These days, that "last inch" has been broadly commoditized, automated, disintermediated, or completely disrupted for most paperboys, yet the manual and analog legacy of people-tasks remains. Bundles of papers don’t get dropped at dawn on many paper carrier doorways anymore, but the lessons of using observational data to understand households and businesses across a community stand the test of time. Sounds a lot like personal lines and small business insurance.

Remote data capture, unstructured data algorithms, and computer vision assisted image analytics can plot my old route and re-create my impressions of yards, cars, and buildings. The pendulum swing of people going out to having things delivered was unexpected at the scale experienced this year, but there is little expectation that folks just want things to be harder than easier going forward. And paying for what you ask for versus subscribing to what is available is a customer "asked and answered" end point. Again, sounds a little like other agent-based businesses.

As we all work to modernize, digitize, and personalize, be ready for a blinding flash of the obvious, yet uncomfortable ethics-grounded reality – the responsible use of data, AI, analytics, and new, observational data may require thoughtful consideration for both the observed and the unobserved alike.

For example, as more customers adopt usage-based observational data risk measurement programs, how will non-adopters be treated and how will other uses of data from adopters get adapted, with or without tangible consent? Would we not market a usage-based product to a high-fixed-rate, long-tenured, claim-free, stay-at-home, low-driving consumer if we knew we would cannibalize our own book? We would certainly try to attract them as new business from competitors.

Bundles of car and home insurance may seem to neglect the safer home right now as occupancy is at an all-time high for the stay-at-home, work-at-home, unemployed-at-home, and care-giver-at-home. It may also ignore that the base case rating algorithms for auto insurance bake in 10,000 miles a year or more as the fixed rate of consumable risk assumed, even as miles driven remain mostly lower now after a cliff-dive earlier this year. An across-the-board community rate cut dismisses unobserved differences, as will rate increases as they reappear. That does not mean these are unobservable.

The game changer of connected mobile phone observable data will help to quantify both sides of the consumption curve simultaneously and at scale for the first time ever. When mobility-as-a-service meets non-driven-car-as-a-yard-sculpture during an economy-busting pandemic, the result is a lot of insurance customers asking for better value.

Either as the accumulated tracing of a trip/route-based mileage counter, or as a submitted odometer photo, monthly miles can now be billed directly and paid directly by mobile. With more observational data than just miles, even "how/when/where you drove" quality assessments can help improve over the "old way" of risk assessment, rating, service, billing, renewal, and payment.

Connected homes/offices/worksites and cars are coming along, too. This new decade, launched and lurching forward during the COVID-laden 2020, will be known as the years of customer connectivity transparency – how they decide to be visible, or not, will be instructive. How we decide to see them will be how we are judged.

It feels like the last ten months of digital adoption pales in comparison to the decades of progress since I left my days as a paperboy and stopped using vinyl records and eight-track tapes. Yet we are just beginning to have, see, know, and use digital data assets at scale on a personalized customer-centric basis.

Our old, manual, analog, and uncollected or unobserved unstructured data is just beginning to be unlocked. No one wants to go back to old television, and we keep finding new ways to get more connected in more ways, even if we may feel more isolated at the same time (Zoom Gloom).

AI-enabled and digital end-to-end ways of working are eliminating all sorts of people-tasks by creating a "mobile first" ecosystem of edge-to-edge event detection, data curation, service consumption, order fulfilment, and digital payment presentment and transaction execution. Some jobs will never be the same again, while others will be gone and forgotten – like a paperboy.

When we acknowledge many people are driving more now, the obvious insight that many don’t drive at all now is a factor of the observed-unobserved who may be abandoned to non-digital channels and non-connected, non-customer-centric contexts. When the blue dot representing the location of a mobile phone never leaves the home, but is always actively moving around the home, it is likely that their miles driven were zero. Should/would we feel fully comfortable about billing that individual for a full rate? Or suppressing them from a marketing list of a usage-based program?

We should be careful to avoid the pratfalls of consumer credit where successful households see scores drop when they stop needing to use revolving credit even with a lifetime of quality trended data up until then. Using less miles, like not needing more revolving debt, happens with an expected trajectory across a consumer life journey. And it happens with dramatic effect in the throes of a pandemic and horrendous recession. And if you use marital status in rating, a new COVID widow likely gets a rate increase for that, too. Combine that with a multiple car household.

Just because there are less "insurable interests" at a household does not diminish a lifetime of being a good neighbor. As we all become more digitally adept, perhaps all the “Grandmas” in our lives and communities should be encouraged to get more connected, stay more connected, and use that new level of connectedness to both shop around and share their insights with their families, friends, neighbors, and communities. For any bad Grandmas, observational data can help make them safer.

Entire family trees might start to influence their roots from the newest digitally capable leaves on their branches, while similarly, the most mature and strongest digital "old oaks" share knowledge of safety, prevention, and value created with observational data programs of risk.

The newest connected phone/car/home/business observable data risk programs are just coming to market but are already finding support from a personalized approach household-by-household. These new methods of risk assessment and pricing using observational data are changing the art of the possible in both insurance product design and delivery. Pay it forward in 2021 and pay yourself first.

Shop and switch to something different than a one-size fits all time-based policy (unless that does fit you best). Switching has never been easier. Switch until you find a fit, and then keep looking, since things are changing fast in the market.

Then tell your own “Grandma” (if they don’t tell you first). Even an extra fifty dollars a month would be a meaningful change for most of the customers on my old paper route.

Embrace the hope of the vaccinations and plan for vacations.

As Always,

Marty (


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