If the next eBay blasts onto the scene but no one sees it happen, does it make a sound? Bob Muglia, in his keynote yesterday at the Microsoft Professional Developers Conference, announced a slew of enhancements for the Windows Azure cloud platform but glossed over a new feature that may turn out to be more valuable to your business than the entire platform-as-a-service (PaaS) market. That feature (so poorly positioned as an “aisle” in the Windows Azure Marketplace) is Azure DataMarket, the former Project Dallas. The basics of this offering are pretty underwhelming – it’s a place where data sets can be stored and accessed, much like Public Data Sets on Amazon Web Services and those hosted by Google labs. But what makes Microsoft’s offering different is the mechanisms around these data sets that make access and monetization far easier.

Every company has reams of data that are immensely valuable — sales data, marketing analytics, financial records, customer insights, and intellectual property it has generated as a course of business. We all know what data in our company is of value, but like our brains, we are lucky if we mine a tenth of its value. Sure, we hit the highlights. Cable and satellite television providers know what shows we watch and, from our DVRs, whether we fast-forward through commercials. Retailers know, by customer, what products we buy, how frequently, and whether we buy more when a sales promotion has been run. But our data can tell us so much more, especially when overlayed with someone else’s data.

For example, an advertising agency can completely change the marketing strategy for Gillette with access to Dish Network’s or TiVo’s DVR data (and many do). Telecom companies collect GPS pings from all our smart phones. Wouldn’t it be nice if you could cross-correlate this with your retail data and find out what type of buyers are coming into your stores and leaving without buying anything? Wouldn’t it be even better if you knew the demographics of those lookie-loos and what it would take to get them to open their wallets? Your sales data alone can’t tell you that.

Wouldn’t it be nice if you could cross-correlate satellite weather forecast data with commodity textile inventories and instruct your factories to build the right number of jackets of the right type and ship them to the right cities at just the right time to maximize profits along all points of the product chain? These relationships are being made today, but not easily. Data seekers need to know where to find data providers, negotiate access rights to the data, then bring in an army of data managers and programmers to figure out how to integrate the data, acquire the infrastructure to house and analyze the data and the business analysts to tweak the reports. Who has time for all that?

What eBay did for garage sales, DataMarket does for data. It provided four key capabilities:

  1. A central place on the Internet where items can be listed, searched for, and marketed by sellers.
  2. A simple, consistent eCommerce model for pricing, selling, and getting paid for your items.
  3. A mechanism for separating the wheat from the chaff.
  4. A simple and trusted way of receiving the items.

With Azure DataMarket, now you can unlock the potential of your valuable data and get paid for it because it provides these mechanisms for assigning value to your data, licensing and selling it, and protecting it.

If you anonymized your sales data, what would it be worth? If you could get access to DirecTV’s subscriber data, AT&T’s iPhone GPS pings, Starbuck’s sales data, or the statistics necessary to dramatically speed up a new drug test, what would it be worth to you? Now there is a commercial market means of answering these questions.

Azure DataMarket solves the third problem with some governance. DataMarket isn't a completely open market where just anyone can offer up data. Microsoft is putting in place mechanisms for validating the quality of the data, authorization to vend it. And through data publication guidelines it is addressing the fourth factor – assurance that the data can be easily consumed. A key feature of DataMarket is preparing the data in the Odata format, making it easy to access directly through such simple business intelligence tools as Microsoft Excel. Where other information services give you access to raw data in a variety of cryptic or proprietary formats, Azure DataMarket sets can be pulled right into pivot tables — no programming required.

Now there aren’t a huge number of data sets in the market today; it will take time for it to reach its full potential. This presents an opportunity for first movers to capture significant advantage. And while there is a mechanism for pricing and selling your data, there’s little guidance on what the price should be. And yes, you do think your data is worth more than it really is . . . now. I’d like to see a data auction feature that will bring market forces into play here.

There are a variety of companies already making money off their data sets; some making nearly as much from their data as they are leveraging that data themselves. Are you? Could you? It’s time to find out.