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The Download: Georgetown tech company sees big opportunities in small data

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As firms flock to the promise of big data — analyzing large volumes of information to make smarter business decisions — Georgetown-based Personal has set its sights on the opposite end of the spectrum: small data.

What does small data entail exactly? For Personal, it’s the bits of information people use to make everyday decisions. That information can include general facts, such as a person’s birthday and address, or specifics, such as chronic illnesses, clothing preferences and credit card transactions.

“We as people have a big data problem,” chief executive Shane Green said. “Our data is growing at an exponential rate and we have no ability to capture all of that data and make sense of it.”

That’s why the firm established an online network where individuals can store their data in a personal “vault.” That information can then be shared at the user’s discretion with other users, and in the future, companies or governments.

Green said the firm has been surprised, and pleasantly so, by the number of products and features that small data has allowed the company to create. Personal will start a service called “Fill It” later this year that uses an individual’s information stored with Personal to complete online forms with the click of a button.

“Big data is optimized around the needs and interests of companies,” Green said. “Small data is optimized around the needs and interests of people. Sometimes those are aligned, but they’re frequently not.”

Green said the company will still pursue its original business model of matching people with merchants and service providers based on the information stored in their vault, such as whether they’re in the market for a car.

But unlike companies that collect data behind the scenes as you peruse the Web, Green said Personal allows its users to decide what information they want to share and lets them collect money from the advertisers that want their business.

“With enough data, [other firms] can get insights into you that you don’t necessarily consciously have about yourself,” Green said. “What I don’t like is when other people are doing that and you don’t understand how or why.”

Malware on mobile

Sourcefire has built a business on security software that protects desktop computers from Internet threats. Now, as more employees bring mobile devices into the workplace, the company has developed a version of its software for those gadgets as well.

The Columbia-based firm plans to sell software for Android phones that detects and combats viruses and other malicious agents that can work their way onto a handheld device through corrupted applications and files.

Mobile security is an increasingly competitive landscape, especially in the Washington region. Firms are pitching the government and large corporations on security measures that range from protecting individual apps to phone cases with built-in fingerprint sensors.

“Malware is certainly one of the more sinister threats, versus losing your device or not having your data backed up,” said Oliver Friedrichs, senior vice president of the cloud technology group. “If you get hit by malware. . .it’s much more severe than any of those other risks.”

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