On Assessing the Value of Personal Data

September 8, 2007

One day a long time ago, during a discussion of data retention best practices in photography at The Online Photographer, the question came up, “Why does it always come down to money? Why and how should I put a price tag on my personal photos?” Generally speaking, that’s a common reaction. And although the response, “Money/value is simply a means of expressing the utility of data retention for a given piece of data,” is a good answer for the why, the question of the how has been eating away at me. At the risk of being labeled a capitalist Philistine, I’ve finally come up with a thought experiment that answers it.

Imagine yourself as a photographer. A shadowy stranger approaches you and offers to buy one of your photographs at a price to be negotiated, but there’s a catch: he wants to buy the entire photograph. Everything. The negative, any prints you’ve made, all digital files containing it. It will be as if you’d never taken that picture, except for the memory in your head. How much money would it take for you to be willing to completely forsake that picture?

Now the experiment takes a twist. You are that shadowy stranger, and you are really your own rich doppelgänger. Your one desire is to completely assume the life of your twin, and you are willing to expend quite a bit of time, energy, and money to do so. Those photographs represent memories and incidents that you need in order to become complete. So, for that photograph, how much are you willing to spend?

Done by a fair and honest negotiation with yourself, the price that you and your doppelgänger arrive at represents the personal value, in monetary terms, of that photograph. Iterate through your entire archive, and you’ve arrived at the “cost” of your data.

You might take a shortcut by dividing your photographs into categories, each category containing pictures of roughly equal value. You could then pick a representative of each category, negotiate for it, and multiply the cost by the size of that category.

The cost you arrive at gives you a rough value to plug into your personal utility tradeoff of time, money, and energy spent on data retention. If your pictures are worth $500, you probably shouldn’t even bother. If the value’s $10,000, maybe you should be running backups. At $100,000, I’d sure as heck be doing off-sites. And although my bias is towards digital data retention practices, the same thought experiment applies to film. It’s only the techniques that differ.

Boy, this post is much drier than I thought it would be. Any reactions to the experiment or thoughts on improving it would be appreciated.

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One Response to “On Assessing the Value of Personal Data”

  1. […] 8th, 2007 As an apology for my last post, I’m posting this rather jarring composition, entitled “Reflections on a Boxer at a […]

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