I got chatting to a random stranger in a pub last week. The guy, who’s name I never actually got due to our conversation being fairly brief, was explaining that he has trouble sleeping, not only that, but he regularly gets less than 8 hours a night. In fact, he averages (looks at his watch) “6 hours and 52 minutes per night”.
At first I thought maybe he was just a really dramatic and pedantic genius, but I quickly realised, he had not counted his weekly average sleeping time on his watch in a fraction of a second, he had just checked his fitbit. He continued by demonstrating how it measured his heart rate as he slept, and told him when he was in his most deep sleep, when he was in a light sleep, and when his heart rate would increase in the middle of the night suddenly….for whatever reason.
The fitbit added so much to his daily exercise plan, as he was able to see how many steps he had taken that day, how many calories he had lost and where he had been. This watch and phone app added real value to his life, and all it cost him was roughly £200. But is that all it is costing him?
Having just visited the fitbit website to post a link for the price of the sports watch, I know that because I clicked on ‘buy’ so I could see the price, my IP address has been noted, a record of my visit and that I came close to purchasing has been made, and because I left the site without purchasing, I will be registered as a bounce (leaving the site without purchasing). More than likely over the next couple of weeks I will see ads for fitbit on my browser, social media and wherever else they can target me. They will have me listed as a potential customer on a certain position of the consumer buying cycle, and these ads will be designed to push me along that cycle in order to buy the product.
All of this is made possible by big data.
Data is all the information that can be collected about people online, and big data, is literally just lots of it.
Big data has massive potential to help society and will undoubtedly be used in some of the most exciting innovations we will have ever seen. Google, for example, was already able to predict a spike in flu just by monitoring the amount of searches for keywords associated with symptoms. That was of course until they got it wrong, but the point in still valid, there is real value in big data.
But there are also some serious concerns that come with it.
Data collection and sharing give immense power to those who wield it. It can give an incredible amount of insight into a persons’ life. Not only through browsing activities which are available to be bought online, but also a persons’ age, gender, political affiliations, religion, and of course from the fitbit example above, location, heart rate, sleeping patterns, and yes, even when your heart increases in the middle of the night for whatever reason.
More and more we are hearing that companies and organisations need to be more customer centered and really listen to what their consumers want. But very few organisations seem to want to know what consumers have to say about privacy, in fact, very few organisations have much to say about it themselves, and appear to slip new privacy policies through quietly. It appears that most are adopting the ‘don’t ask for permission, ask for forgiveness’ tactic. It is easier to ignore the problem until it becomes bigger.
The reality is, we live in a different world today than we did 20 years ago. Just like consumers leave a digital fingerprint, so do organisations. A simple PR campaign may not clean up an embarrassing mistake as easily as it used to, as information can be recalled and shared instantaneously, like this link to Pepsi’s pulled ad which was again uploaded only 17 hours ago to YouTube.
It’s clear that big data is incredibly valuable, but it is also hugely powerful and has the potential to create big problems. As in every ecology, with challenges, there are also opportunities. For the organisations willing to take the lead and display that they actually are socially responsible, that demonstrate their transparency on what data is collected, what they do with it, and how long they do it for. By easing the fear associated with data collection, we will then really start to reap the true value that it can offer to innovation.