October 7, 2015

Unomi: A Bridge Between Privacy and Digital Marketing

jahia-logoWe live in a digital age where personalized experience is becoming a mandatory part of business. Companies are gathering massive amount of personal data about their users -- whether we like it or not -- to deliver personalized, enhanced experiences. Companies like Apple, for example, need personalized data to deliver news, music, and other services to their paying users. People are being tracked online 24x7, and the ability to link this personalized data to user behavior and then pinpoint that person is a serious privacy problem.

What we need is a mechanism that strikes a balance between privacy and user data; we need to rebuild users’ trust.

And that’s exactly what Unomi does.

Is Unomi the Answer?

The objective of Unomi is to deliver a software core that has all those capabilities to protect privacy of customers without taking away a valuable resource that can help companies improve their products. The primary goal of Unomi is to anonymize personal information, which protects users’ privacy while giving companies the data they need to improve their services. Unomi is based on a standard that is a reference implementation of an OASIS Context Server standardization.

A Brief History of Unomi

Unomi was recently accepted as an Apache Software Foundation Incubator project, which is not easy to do. ASF looks at many factors: sustainability of a project, for example, is extremely important, and an open source project can be sustainable if there are several entities backing that project, instead of just one player. In addition, there should be enough support for the project from within the ASF so that it’s solid for a long run.

Apache offers many benefits to open source projects. I asked Rich Bowen, the Executive Vice President of the Apache Software Foundation, about the benefits projects receive by becoming part of ASF. He pointed out that projects benefit from an established infrastructure, governance, mentorship along with name recognition and reputation.

“Different projects need different things. Each of the above can be beneficial to any project past a certain size. Apache has a reputation of being trustworthy, from a code provenance/IP perspective, and people know that they can use code from the ASF without worrying about licensing, or patent/copyright/trademark issues. Projects have a full-time technical staff to handle their infrastructure needs. The ASF is heavily populated by people who have a decade or more of Open Source experience, that projects can draw on as they grow and learn. All of these things are there in a culture of collaborative development and peer-review of both code and community,” said Bowen.

Jean-Baptiste Onofré (who works for Talend) is an Apache Incubator Committee member and a mentor for the Unomi project. When asked about the importance of Unomi he said, “One of the key Unomi features is that it's an implementation of a OASIS specification, providing high-performance user profile and event tracking service. It allows companies to own their own data and the way to expose the data. It doesn't mean the data is physically stored in the company (it could be on a private or public cloud), but they manage the way the data is stored and provided as content.”

Unomi Is Solving the Privacy Equation

The major backer of Unomi is Jahia, an open source User Experience Platform vendor. I talked to the CEO and Co-founder of Jahia, Elie Auvray. Talking about Unomi, he said, “"When we started working on the project with Serge Huber, CTO and Co-founder of Jahia, two years ago, the need of that standard and the system were already there and have tremendously expanded since. Data exchange and usage grow exponentially but without the ability of users to control it or to understand it. As a consequence, data privacy seems to be more and more threatened. That’s why we say that it’s time for digital marketing to be more ethical and transparent.”

Unomi creates that balance between privacy and statistics; it generates that trust mentioned earlier. It is the mechanism that enables companies in giving their users the much needed control over their data. Unomi becomes the foundation of trust between companies and their customers.

Auvray explained that the objective of the Unomi project is to deliver an engine that is able to manage enormous, massive amount of data. It provides the APIs that allow software vendors to actually take that engine for their personalization project and create interfaces that let their customers to first understand what type of data they are aggregating and where that data is used, and then they precisely decide which data they want to anonymize.

It’s a win-win situation.

Enforcing Privacy

Europe is extremely protective of the privacy of their citizens. Soon, it won’t be at the sole discretion of the companies to offer such privacy protection. Auvray said that such policies will be made mandatory by law, which can already be seen in the “right to be forgotten” policy where Google was made to remove URLs from its index. Similar regulations can be brought in to protect privacy.

Auvray added, “The digital right to be forgotten is not new. It’s just becoming mainstream as people start to understand the massive amount of data and the risk behind the fact to not be able to control it.”

The Takers

The potential adopters of Unomi are those players who manage personally identifiable information about their customers. And that is almost everyone – from banks to car dealers, from government agencies to organizations, from electronics good manufactures to service providers.

When I asked, Auvray said, “…ultimately, all companies that manage customer profiles will soon have this requirement.”


Previously, customers had no way to understand what type of data was stored and what kind of things were done to it; they had no control or say in it. And that makes Unomi one of the most important projects in the modern world.

“Unomi is the first project where companies can aggregate data while respecting the data privacy of people, because we have to allow people to understand and decide what they want to be done with that data and anonymize it as they want,” said Auvray.

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