Growing a mobile microeconomy

October 2015 - Mobile Vikings’ 235,000 users aren’t simply a customer base. They’re a community. Together with iMinds, the Flemish mobile service provider has used that community to create Belgium’s largest Living Lab through its City of Things project in Antwerp — connecting its subscribers with developers and entrepreneurs looking to research new products and devices, while rewarding the community with discounts, virtual currencies and special offers for taking part in studies and surveys.

We spoke with Mobile Vikings CEO Frank Bekkers and Chief Strategic Officer Pieter Vandekerckhove to learn more about Mobile Vikings and the City of Things project.

Q: What was the idea behind Mobile Vikings?

Frank Bekkers: When we founded the company, mobile data was very expensive. We considered mobile Internet a basic human right, so our original goal was to enable completely free mobile Internet in Belgium. That was before the smartphone. When the iPhone started to gain popularity, the cost of mobile data came down. But by that point we had been building a community of members, subscribers, and we saw there was tremendous potential in being a community- driven mobile operator. That was the path that got us here today.

Pieter Vandekerckhove: By virtue of our size and number of subscribers — 235,000 and counting — we have the leverage to forge special relationships with governments and businesses. Through innovations like virtual currencies and mobile wallets, we’re getting great deals for our users. Basically, if we have a partnership with a merchant in a city, we can have our members earn points (we call them Viking credits) by shopping at that business. These points can be applied to the subscriber’s mobile bill, so they can end up with free calling and data just by changing their shopping habits.

Frank Bekkers: One of the big advantages we have as a mobile provider is that our user base is very engaged, and skews towards early adoption. They’re excited about new products and services, they want to be a part of research, they want to see new applications and collaborate in their creation. So, you really couldn’t ask for a more enthusiastic group of partners — and that’s what they are, and what they want to be: partners in innovation. Collaborators.

Q: When did you get involved with iMinds?

Pieter Vandekerckhove: I started working with iMinds back in 2004 through their original Living Lab project, which was part of the i-City initiative. We had a group of 1,000 citizens who helped us explore new location-based applications, services and business models, and were looking at how to help users accept and integrate new technologies and products into their daily lives. Accessing that kind of user base in those ways opened my eyes to a lot of different possibilities, and it helped us optimize the integration of new apps and products.

Frank Bekkers: We’ve always been big supporters of iMinds’ Living Lab process. Their methodology for user and stakeholder engagement is very fluid, very adaptable. After i-City, we just kept going with iMinds. The CoMobile project, for example, looked at creating an open mobile wallet, which basically connects customers with retailers. It supports payment transactions, loyalty rewards, prepaid cards, and even virtual currency.

Pieter Vandekerckhove: We also were part of the SoLoMIDEM project, which created a platform that allows for targeted advertisements — giving users access to retailers and offers based on their specific shopping habits, location, things like that, all while protecting their privacy. These types of considerations and technologies are all being integrated into our Mobile Vikings community.

Q: So it’s not only creating a community, it’s almost building a microeconomy, or an ecosystem.

Frank Bekkers: That’s exactly it. It’s essentially a third-party payment system we’re constructing, but it goes beyond just financial transactions. What if you could earn social currencies, or ecological currencies? The greener you are, the more points you earn? Right now, we’re running a project where users are rewarded for shopping for people who can’t do it themselves due to disability or age. These shoppers get government credits that can be applied to anything from concert and movie tickets to swimming pools. You get a discount for helping people out. It’s a great example of the potential for social currency, and proved the power of incentives for driving engagement in the City of Things.

Q: So what is the City of Things project?

Frank Bekkers: It’s a partnership between us, iMinds and the City of Antwerp. We offer our Viking Community as a giant living laboratory to research usage, test new applications, and get feedback on how people actually use their devices. What we’ve created here — what all Living Lab projects work toward — is a testing ground to experiment with products and services while staying in constant contact with the user base. We’re talking user research, prototyping, data capture, data mapping… everything you need to develop, deploy and test new offerings.

Pieter Vandekerckhove: In terms of the actual project specifics, we’ve got iBeacon devices installed throughout Antwerp and are linked up with point-of-sale systems in stores all over the city. This gives us access to non-stop monitoring of all sorts of data from our users in real time, which is invaluable for developers.

Q: Are there privacy concerns when it comes to collecting all this data?

Pieter Vandekerckhove: Our focus on privacy is one of the things that makes our project unique. One of our primary tenets as a company is that the user owns their own data — and it’s up to them to decide what to do with it. That sense of empowerment tends to make them more eager to participate. They control what data is available to which partner.

Frank Bekkers: This goes back to some of the lessons we learned with SoLoMIDEM. With targeted ads, users are always concerned about their privacy. With SoLoMIDEM, we looked at all the socio-economic factors around privacy — privacy legislation, technical challenges, questions like, “Do different types of users have different privacy boundaries?” That’s where the “Own Your Own Data” paradigm came from.

Q: How do you guarantee that type of privacy in a Living Lab environment?

Frank Bekkers: It’s a combination of technical solutions and governance. Encryption, obviously, helps keep data secure. But we’re also developing a charter that our partners will sign and respect. It will spell out privacy policies, and will obviously have provisions for auditing, to make sure the charter is being respected by all parties.