In Battle of Jewish Events Apps, a Question of Online Privacy

Grapevine Wants Your Info — For JJive, One Size Fits All

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By Yermi Brenner

Published July 07, 2013, issue of July 12, 2013.
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In a tale of two apps, both the Jewish establishment and a private entrepreneur have recently released downloadable software that will enable users to obtain up-to-date listings of Jewish events.

Though similar in their goal of engaging young adults in Jewish life, Grapevine and JJive, as they are called, differ radically in an important respect: Grapevine, the Jewish establishment’s product for digital mobile devices, offers its users individualized listings based on their personal information, which the app requires in exchange; JJive asks for no personal data but, in turn, provides a one-size-fits-all list of events.

The distinction between the two apps highlights the conflicting desires of consumers in the digital age: the right of privacy versus the need for personalized service.

“I don’t really want to be informed about the young mothers event the JCC is holding,” said Sacha Litman, president and founder of Grapevine. People have become accustomed to products that know them, he said, and that are able to make smart recommendations.

The Grapevine app, which is funded by grants from major Jewish organizations like Natan and UJA-Federation of New York, is part of a wider initiative to create a digital database of Jews. The goal is to enable organizations to personalize their interaction with members and potential members.

“The more we know about the customer, the better job we can do in talking in a language that would resonate,” Litman said. “My understanding about your Jewish journey would allow me to do a much better job of recommending events.”

Immediately after downloading Grapevine, users are asked to input their personal details. Email, ZIP code and age are required, while sharing interests and social preferences is optional but recommended. Grapevine uses this information to create personalized event listings for each user.

Litman’s app covers three areas— New York City, Columbus, Ohio and Rhode Island — and she has plans to expand in the near future. Jewish organizations are asked to add their events directly to Grapevine, which then filters the lists based on the personal data provided by each user. Nearly 170 Jewish groups are already on board and posting events, according to Hindy Poupko, executive director for the Council of Young Jewish Presidents, which operates Grapevine in New York.

JJive was founded by entrepreneur Ari Teman, who shared Grapevine’s vision of connecting young adults to their Jewish community but thought it should be done in a much less intrusive manner. Teman claims that by creating a database of users’ personal information and preferences, Grapevine is unjustifiably invading the users’ privacy. He said that even in a large market like New York, the number of daily Jewish events is limited, so the idea of predictive analytics — targeted recommendations based on users’ data — is unnecessary.

“When you only have 10 events a night or a week, you don’t need predictive analytics,” he said. “You just need to take your hand and scroll down the screen.”

Teman’s app is based on a technology that automatically collects events from Facebook and displays them according to geographical divide, covering 10 cities in the United States.

“Users [of Grapevine] have to ask where is their information going,’’ Teman said, touting the greater privacy inherent in his approach.

Still, Grapevine’s approach mirrors much of today’s online interaction. Internet users on mobile or desktop devices are flooded with content, making recommendation engines like the Grapevine app a valuable time-saving tool, its backers say.

According to Litman, users need not fear that their personal information will go anywhere else: Grapevine’s files are kept in a very secure engine that no organization can tap into.

With data-based recommendation engines popping up everywhere online, the dilemma of whether or not to share personal information has become significant for every Web user.

“We encourage people to provide only whatever information is necessary,” said Adi Kamdar, an activist with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a not-for-profit organization that aims to protect the public interest in the digital sphere. “You don’t need to provide your full name or your phone number. That sort of info won’t necessarily help you use the service better; it only serves to help identify you if the data is sold to other third parties.”

As for those concerned about Grapevine, “We are not anybody’s stool pigeon,” Litman said. “We are not grabbing info and handing it to someone else. If Amazon does this to sell more books, why shouldn’t we do it for Jewish life?”

Contact Yermi Brenner at Brenner@forward.com


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