Evidon's Andy Kahl on Balancing Data Privacy With Business Needs

A Q&A With the Director of Data Analysis at Ad-Privacy Services Firm Evidon

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The typical ad-industry data-science professional holds a masters or doctoral degree in computer engineering, statistics, and similar fields. But Andy Kahl is anything but typical. The director of data analysis at ad-privacy-services firm Evidon studied anthropology and religion, and got his start in targeted advertising by developing a campaign for a car dealer.

Andy Kahl
Andy Kahl
"It was hugely successful," said Mr. Kahl. "It was my first foray into targeted advertising."

The opportunity came about while he was working as a quasi-apprentice at a print shop, and decided to test his interest in computing and data analysis on behalf of an auto-dealer client. The idea was to send mailers featuring the latest models of cars previous customers had purchased.

He made his way into the digital-ad industry in a more full-fledged way when he joined the analyst team at Right Media in 2006, before the firm was bought in full by Yahoo during the earlier days of data-driven ad tech acquisitions. He went on to work on Yahoo's central data systems team after the '07 acquisition.

Mr. Kahl joined Evidon in 2010. The firm offers free software called Ghostery that exposes which tracking technologies are embedded on websites, and is a backend platform driving the industrywide Digital Advertising Alliance's AdChoices icon serving and reporting system. Mr. Kahl currently is based south of St. Paul, Minn., but plans a relocation to the New York area.

He's no ad industry apologist, though. Indeed, Mr. Kahl "went through the creeped-out phase like most consumers," when first confronted with targeted digital advertising, he said. "The issue of monetizing online media through advertising juxtaposed against privacy -- it tends to be very easy to make that a black-and-white issue…. I've always thought it was a more nuanced issue than that." He continued, "There's this sort of anthropological aspect to that issue…. Where is our social breaking point?"

Mr. Kahl works directly with Evidon's data-science team as well as its marketing and sales staff, and serves as a public face for the company in his report writing and blogging. A recent "baby" of his: Evidon's Global Tracker report found 987 web-tracking tags from ad servers, analytics companies, audience-segmenting firms, social networks and sharing tools in 2012. That was up 53% from the 645 unique trackers found in the first quarter.

Ad Age: How has the world of digital data changed since your days at Right Media?

Mr. Kahl: The data-collection industry has experienced amazing technical growth -- so user-intelligence databases are bigger, faster, and more stable than ever. In my estimation, however, the capability to collect and store data grew much faster than the ability to parse that data and effectively use it. As a result, we're entering a period now where volume isn't everything, and companies are working to better understand and act on the data they have.

Ad Age: In your work for Evidon, you do a lot of writing to help illuminate your research in a way that's understandable to marketers. What do you wish the business and marketing execs you work with would grasp about data scientists and what they do?

Mr. Kahl: Data nerds are only really happy when they're assured of their own impartiality. I think there's a tendency to assume that analysts start from a given position and try to prove it with data -- when in reality most of us take positions based on where the data directs us. Spin is a poor professional substitute for actual insight -- the good data professionals I know find it most rewarding when they're challenged to make subjective sense of something empirically counterintuitive.

Ad Age: The data-driven digital-ad industry seems to be at a stage in which it can be more introspective and have a better understanding of itself. Why is that important?

Mr. Kahl: Really big players have commoditized the low-hanging fruit of the ad-tech industry, offering mass-produced ad delivery, user targeting, and site-analytics tools as part of a product suite that includes ubiquitous user services (like search engines and social networks). Innovation can only compete against a commodity when its unique value is understood -- it's true for organic fruit, German-made sports cars, and now advertising technology. It's important that the industry mature to this stage if it's going to continue to flourish -- and I believe that the recent trend toward self-reflection indicates that there are plenty of years of growth ahead.

Ad Age: Players in the data industry -- online and offline -- throw around terms like "anonymization" and "non-PII" all the time. But there are ongoing doubts among data experts who suggest that personally identifiable information can't be truly anonymized. Is it possible to derive marketing value from profile data that is actually anonymized to the point that it cannot be traced back to an individual?

Mr. Kahl: First, you have to really work to truly anonymize data. You can build products that don't use personal information with relative ease, but to really make sure you're not storing anything identifiable, you have to dedicate time and resources to scrubbing your data set. In other words, even if you're not collecting personal data on purpose, you're probably collecting enough to identify a user should it be put to that purpose.

Mr. Kahl: Anonymous data probably has more use in an advertising context than the industry has realized. It's difficult to compare individual data with higher level data about the whole of a site's audience in term of its advertising effectiveness, and so ad-tech companies have leaned toward collecting more data in total, and more precise data when possible. As we continue down this path of reflective analysis, though, I expect there to be more open discussion about how much of the individual data is reliably useful (or valuable).

Ad Age: Evidon is one of the companies that provides DAA icon-management services to publishers, advertisers and agencies. When you're at the family dinner table or out at a party with non-industry friends, do any of them know what the icon is or what it does? Either way, do you think the icon itself as a consumer-facing symbol matters when it comes to privacy or protecting data security?

Mr. Kahl: The whole idea of targeted advertising has barely risen to mainstream discussion, so the AdChoices icon definitely has its work cut out to make into cocktail-party conversation. But I think the first step toward protecting the privacy of consumers is transparency -- and the icon is an important step in that direction. That kind of transactional awareness -- allowing a consumer to understand that something is happening right now -- is crucial to any effort. Back that up by providing a user with honest education and a meaningful choice, and you've got the groundwork for something that could work for everyone.
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