Data Story: Dan Lynn of Full Contact

Data stories is Gnip’s way to talk about the many amazing ways that data is used. Today on the blog we’re speaking with Dan Lynn, a cofounder and CTO of FullContact. FullContact is trying to solve the world’s contact information problem, which is no small feat. We thought the dilemmas faced by this team with dealing with disparate and decaying data makes for a great story. You can follow Dan on Twitter at @DanKLynn

Dan Lynn of FullContact

1. What problem is Full Contact trying to solve with data?

At FullContact, we’re solving the world’s contact information problem, which is that your contact information is a mess. In address books like GMail, Outlook, SalesForce and customer lists, you’ve got missing details, duplicate entries, and the same person fractured across multiple cloud systems. We’re using data to help you clean all that up and keep those address books in sync, up to date, and duplicate-free.

2. What do you see as the advantages of combining social data with contact information? Do people make deeper connections if they have social data?

When I was growing up, I had 3 or fewer ways I could contact my friends: street address, phone (usually their parents’!) and, later, email. As the Internet took off, they added instant messenger accounts, eBay usernames, Twitter handles, Facebook accounts, LinkedIn profiles and dozens more. These are all valid means of contacting someone, but most people prefer some over others, and it’s great to have that choice.

While it’s awesome for me to find out who among my contacts have Twitter accounts that I’m not yet following, using social data is very helpful for me (or a computer) to tell two similar-but-different contacts apart. Social profiles are starting to act more and more as a person’s public identifier, much like a Social Security number that you would actually *want* people to have. Filling-out my contacts with social data makes it that much easier to merge duplicates, tell the difference between John Smith Jr. and John Smith Sr., and contact people in ways other than email, phone, or snail mail.

3. What do you wish you knew a year ago about how people archive and share contact information?

Honestly, a year ago, the problem was staring us straight in the face: people *don’t* really archive and share contact information. Sharing has been too error prone for people to trust an automated system not to screw up their contacts. I’ve lost count of the number of times people share contact information by reading phone numbers from each other’s phone, yelling email addresses across the room, or emailing contact info back and forth with subject lines like “Bart Lorang’s phone number”. The problem is hard, and everyone has different expectations around the idea of sharing contact information. Many people want their contacts automatically kept up to date with changes in their co-workers’ address books. Others only want updates if the contact publicly changes his/her information. What should an automated system do if two of your colleagues share conflicting changes to one of your contacts? Ultimately we all just want the best way to get in touch with someone at a given time.

4. Contact information is considered decaying data. What are the challenges of working with decaying information?

The idea of decaying data is that the data you have *right* now is only a snapshot of the world at a given time. You could say that your data “decayed” if the real world has moved on and your database hasn’t caught up. This is a real problem with contact information. It changes constantly. People change jobs, change names, move, change phone carriers, and more. The challenge is keeping your address book up to date with all these changes. Many companies that work with contact information in bulk simply “punt” and apply a simple rule to their data by reducing their confidence in it some percentage every year. I think that’s too heavy-handed and doesn’t work for the end-user. At FullContact, we fundamentally believe that a person’s contact information is current until we find some other, newer, piece of contact information that suggests otherwise. That means that we’re constantly searching the internet for up-to-date information about your contacts.

5. How do you think Full Contact fits into the world of social media and how people are already obtaining contact information? 

For the last couple years, we’ve been seeing the social networks clamp down on their users’ contact information (often for good reason). We remember the spat between Google and Facebook over the ability to export your friends’ information. It’s easy to agree philosophically with elements of both arguments. To Facebook’s point, a person should be in control of her own contact information. To Google’s point, a person should be in control of her contacts, and has a reasonable expectation to get the same data back from a service that she put in. We think FullContact helps bridge this gap. We believe that you own your address book, but we also believe that you have a right to control what information about you is floating around out there on the Internet. We want to you to have the most up-to-date picture of your contacts, but we want to give your contacts control over their own information.

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