A Cambridge Analytica Alum Launches a New Data Firm

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    The last two years have been a rollercoaster journey for Matt Oczkowski. On the evening of the 2016 general elections, he sat inside then-candidate Donald Trump’s San Antonio campaign headquarters, where he led a team of anxious data scientists crunching numbers throughout the day before an unexpected victory party at a local saloon much afterward that night. The former Scott Walker aide invested the following year speaking to the press and at seminars around the world about the Trump team’s winning strategy. But that professional crest soon descended into months of fending off accusations about the company he worked for while on the campaign: Cambridge Analytica.

    “When I first joined there, I legitimately believed in the offering and what they were trying to do, ” Oczkowski says. “It’s inauspicious that some actions by a few performers at the senior degree of the company reflected poorly on the entire company.”

    In the wake of a data privacy debacle relating to the misappropriation of as many as 87 million Facebook customers’ personal data, Cambridge Analytica has since ceased procedures and become the subject of international investigations. Though Oczkowski left the company in April 2017, long before the scandal broke, he now joins hundreds of former employees trying to start over in a world that has, almost overnight, begun looking at the field of data science not as novel and innovative, but as intrusive and inescapable.

    ‘We’re trying to figure out what shapes your worldview.’

    Matt Oczkowski, Data Propria

    For Oczkowski, that new beginning signifies starting a data company called Data Propria. The firm officially launched earlier this year, and has already begun working with corporate clients and politicians, including Illinois governor Bruce Rauner’s reelection campaign. It’s owned by a mother corporation called CloudCommerce, which also recently acquired the digital marketing firm belonging to Brad Parscale, Trump’s current campaign administrator and the 2016 campaign’s former digital administrator. Now, working out of Data Propria’s San Antonio headquarters with some of his colleagues from that 2016 operate, Oczkowski hopes to continue the data analytics work he started back then.

    But that work comes at a time when the very notion of data-driven advertising has become the subject of international scrutiny and the rules of procedure. Facebook, one of the biggest data collectors in the world, has been called before international lawmakers to testify about its data practices. And just last week, the European Union’s new data privacy regulations went into effect, dedicating consumers more owned over their data and requiring enterprises to get consumers’ explicit consent to use and collect their data.

    These changes will necessarily inform the behavior Data Propria and additional data analytics firms operate. Still, Oczkowski recognise there will be plenty of “overlap” with Cambridge Analytica. Like that company, Data Propria will focus on behavioral data science, which is essentially the practice of using data to target people with ads and marketing based on, as Oczkowski sets it, people’s “motivational behavioral triggers.”

    “We’re trying to figure out what shapes your worldview, ” he mentions. To that purpose, Data Propria will conduct its own research and polling for clients, develop its own targeting models based on what it learns from those polls and other datasets, and work with a creative team to help them develop ads that are most likely to appeal to people based on those modelings. The firm will specially focus, Oczkowski says, on middle America. Oczkowski believes the operate he did helping sell presidential candidates in those states easily translates to helping commercial patrons sell products.

    “There are few people who understand middle America like we do, ” Oczkowski says of himself and Parscale. He likewise schemes on building out products similar to the ones Cambridge Analytica’s team to construct the campaign. One including with regard to used data to specify what cities then-candidate Trump should visit based on local supporting in that place. Oczkowski argues the same tool could help business determine where to expand.

    Despite Cambridge Analytica’s pariah status, Oczkowski remains an advocate for the company’s work. “Cambridge for better or for worse, depending on how people recognize them, innovated in this space and pushed the space a long ways, ” he mentions , noting that giant ad organizations like Ogilvy have recently launched their own behavioral data science functionings. Meanwhile, academics and marketing professionals have increasingly raised questions about whether this type of behavioral targeting even really works.

    Despite Cambridge Analytica’s pariah status, Oczkowski remains an advocate for the company’s work.

    Oczkowski is a known fact that any data shop operating in a post-Cambridge Analytica world will necessarily have to think differently about privacy and clarity. Just last week, Vermont became the first US state to pass a statute forcing companies like Acxiom that sell people’s data to register with the state. As regulators increasingly force these companies to rethink their business models, Oczkowski says, firms like Data Propria will need to focus on ways to more accurately target people based on the groups they’re affiliated with , not the personally identifying information that can be gleaned from data brokers. For now, companies like Data Propria still have plenty of data flows to pull from, but as Facebook and others modernize their privacy practices, it’s unclear how long those creeks will last.

    “There’s a healthy debate going on about privacy, and I think that’s its further consideration perfectly worth having. Then there’s another conversation about convenience and being able to get messaging that matters to you and appeals to you, ” Oczkowski says. “I think there’s a happy middle ground in between there that the public has to reconcile, because I don’t think the answer’s going to come from the government or some regulation any time soon.”

    Despite Oczkowski’s clean break from Cambridge Analytica, CloudCommerce is scarcely without controversy of its own. In February, the Associated Press reported that Jonathan Lei, the former CEO of the company where reference is operated under a different name, has been the object of an FBI sting operation in 2006, and later pleaded guilty to conspiracy to devote securities scam. And according to court filings reviewed by WIRED, current CloudCommerce CEO Andrew Van Noy determined a real estate fraud suit in 2010 alleging he accepted $100,000 to buy property in Park City, Utah, and instead expended it on his “personal uses.” In a 2010 bankruptcy filing reviewed by WIRED, Van Noy likewise reported simply over $16,000 in annual income, while his LinkedIn profile reflects that at that time, he was working at Morgan Stanley, managing “over $ 300 million dollars worth of transactions.”

    Gail Gitcho, a former press secretary for the Republican National Committee and a spokesperson for CloudCommerce, said here Associated Press article was “problematic, ” and that “Jon Lei has no operational, managerial, or shareholder control of the company. He does not make any decisions on behalf of the company , nor does he have any role in the day-to-day operations.” She did not answer specific questions on the record about Van Noy’s real estate dealings or his bankruptcy filing. After initially offering an interview with Van Noy, Gitcho declined to induce him available after WIRED asked questions about his background. In a press release Tuesday, Van Noy mentioned, “The introduction of Data Propria is a crucial step in CloudCommerce’s vision of helping patrons discover how data can drive behavior as a change agent for the good.”

    Parscale, who now sits on the CloudCommerce board, did not respond to WIRED’s request for comment.

    Oczkowski maintains he was unaware of this history before joining the company. “The stuff with CloudCommerce happened long before I was involved, ” he mentions. “The stuff I’ve read in the press isn’t really representative of what I know these guys to be.”

    Critics of Cambridge Analytica say the world is moving away from Oczkowski’s data-based targeting. “With new legislation popping up in the US, one has to wonder what restrictions will hinder Matt’s ability to build his business the lane he intended to, ” says David Carroll, an assistant professor at Parsons School of Design, who is suing Cambridge Analytica in the UK for access to his data. “There’s a risk in being bullish about this material, but if he can create a framework “thats transparent” and ethical and adheres to the highest standards of the world, then more power to him.”

    Oczkowski hopes to prove his critics, and critics of behavioral data science writ large, wrong. “The reaction to this shouldn’t be for us to peel back and say,’ Hey this isn’t a good thing. We shouldn’t be doing this ,’ ” he says. “It should be figuring out what are the exhibition ethical standards that align marketers with customers? “

    Exactly what those standards will entail remains an open question, one that Oczkowski and the rest of his industry are still trying to answer–even as they expand their data-driven pursuits.

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