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Heinz College Students Are Helping to Create a Future Where Your Data Belongs to You

By Scott Barsotti

When new companies face new challenges, they come to us! Privacy startup Atomite is working to create a data marketplace where consumers are in control, and a team of Heinz College students provided a critical piece of the puzzle.

Wouldn’t it be nice if you had more control over what companies know about you? Maybe you’re comfortable sharing your name and gender with a company, but not your age. Or maybe you’re cool sharing all your demographic information, but not your finances or political affiliations. Or maybe you’re fine with companies knowing quite a lot about you individually, but you draw the line at them knowing your location or anything about your family.

An innovative startup, Atomite, wants to give users that kind of control, and they’ve tapped Heinz College students from the Master of Information Systems Management (MISM) program to help make that vision a reality.

Data has become much more than just figures on a spreadsheet. In fact, German chancellor Angela Merkel recently said that “data will be the new raw material of the 21st century, which brings with it complex challenges, from economic inclusion to privacy.”

Like any raw material, data can be mined, refined, and put to good use. Unlike other raw materials, however, data is generated in large quantities by every individual human being every single day. Currently, much of our data is out there in the wild and we have no control over it; either that, or we give it away in exchange for services like “free” web apps, search engines, email, and social media. 

But Atomite aims to give consumers greater ownership over their own data. Atomite provides what it calls “Privacy as a Service” (PaaS), an idea that empowers consumers to take more control over what data gets shared, and to reap more value from making their information available to companies and marketers. Consumers who sign up would control what bits of their personal data get shared via a dashboard, and earn points for allowing Atomite’s B2C licensees to rent out that data on an anonymous and segmented basis to consumer-permissioned third parties. That is to say: share more data, get more points, earn more rewards.

Crucially, the platform also shifts the information sharing decision away from participant companies at a time when the information economy is awash in personal data that is not expressly permitted by the data subject.

In addition to providing companies with access to verified, permissioned, and anonymous consumer data, and providing data subjects with compensation, a key to Atomite’s business proposition is the ability to standardize data taken in from many sources. These are heterogeneous sources with inevitable differences in how data fields are named (Company A may refer to a customer’s income as ‘INCOME’ in their database while Company B may refer to the same value as ‘SALARY,’ and so on.) Atomite needed a tool that could streamline this classification process and remove redundancies in the data.

The Heinz College student team devised a solution that integrates data received from multiple “first-party” sources and creates a single point of query. The solution was built using Amazon Web Services and open source big data tools.

“This is such a critical capability for us because it hugely simplifies the process, and accomplishes the task at scale. This work has enabled Atomite to offer our customers a normalized data platform on which to build their consumer data marketplaces,” said Jon Fisse, co-founder and CEO of Atomite.

“Having the CMU students offer their talents, experience, and perspective on this initiative has allowed Atomite to enjoy a significant ‘speed to market’ advantage vis-à-vis our competitors. The students clearly knew their stuff from a technology perspective, and we had a great back-and-forth dynamic throughout the project,” said Fisse.

The CMU Startup Culture

Since 2008, CMU has launched over 260 startups, and CMU companies have raised over $1 billion since 2011. Entrepreneurial innovation and drive are woven into the culture of CMU. Among U.S. universities without a medical school, CMU is tops for startups and spinoffs, with several incubator labs, funds, and centers—including the influential Swartz Center—established to support and develop students’ creative ambitions and ideas.

That entrepreneurial spirit extends to our capstone projects. While many Heinz College students complete projects for large private firms, major non-profits, and government agencies, some have the unique experience of working with startups on business problems that, in many cases, have no roadmap. That presents an intriguing challenge for a team of grad students who are able to put their newly minted tech and management skills to use in developing innovative and market-moving solutions.

The team’s faculty advisor, Chris Kowalsky, affirmed that working with a larger company on a capstone project can be extremely valuable as it gives students good insight into how organizations function and how decisions get made, but that working with a startup is “a fundamentally different learning experience.” With a startup, the students work directly with the founders, and their solutions might be used by the client right away—not always the case with larger firms.

Kowalsky added if the client is a startup, the students are gaining perspective at the ground floor of something that’s never been done before, and that they may have a hand in developing something that could potentially become disruptive in the future.

“We believe we’re doing something that’s pretty revolutionary,” said Fisse. “If you’re a grad student, working with a company like ours is an exciting opportunity. And it’s exciting for us, as a startup, to bring these rising stars to the table and enable them to build capabilities that distinguish our offering from those of our competitors.”

Collaborating with a new company on a new problem and using new technologies? It doesn’t get more Heinz College than that.


This Capstone Project was completed by Hyunjae Lee, Garima Pawar, Jonny Anderson Carmona Rodriguez, Yuan Shen, and Upasna Suman.