Vanessa Zainzinger follows the breadcrumbs to tomorrow’s tracking trends
Chances are high that you have already used Google today. As you typed in what you were looking for, scanned through the results and clicked on the link you needed, you provided Google with plenty of valuable information. To an extent, you have influenced which links are to show up further up or down on the page the next time someone has a similar query as you. This is a big part of how one of the biggest web companies of its time works: through learning from you.
It is true that your data is everywhere. With every website you visit, every article you read, every Twitter update you write, every click you do on the web, you leave behind a trace of information. Remember the Grimm tale of Hansel and Gretel? Well, you are like Hansel, laying a trail of pebbles as you walk, able to track every step you took. Just that we don’t call it pebbles, we call it exhaust data. This is the sheer unfathomable amount of data left behind as a matter of course by on- and offline activities. The value of this information is yet to be understood, but we know that it is one of the great concepts that will influence our future in unimaginable ways. What can it tell us? If we use it the right way, most anything. As Google’s chief economist Hal Varian told The Economist recently, “Data are widely available, what is scarce is the ability to extract wisdom from them.”.
Data big enough that one has to think about how to store it, let alone how to make use of it, lends enormous advantages to those who can make sense of it. Just as Google has understood how to turn what they’re learning from users into a system which became the key component of their success, a sophisticated usage of exhaust data will help other industries evolve beyond their current capacities.
As digital devices soar and prices plummet, sharing information is becoming more accessible, improvements in algorithms are driving apps forward and the processing power and capacity of storage devices is constantly improving, it is safe to say that the business of data exhaust is about to explode.
Quick to pick it up was, as usual, the advertising industry, which has been bombarding users with targeted ads chosen through passively collected information for years. Whether you approve of this system or not, the industry is growing. Radium One, an organisation that uses social analytics and data to create targeted ad campaigns, has raised $21million in Series B financing only a few weeks ago. They have become immensely popular through their trademark ShareGraph technology, which analyses how users communicate with their closest connections. The business of information management, the collecting and processing of data for commercial purposes, is in fact growing twice as fast as the software business as a whole: at an impressive 10% per year. The industry is estimated to be worth over $100 billion. If you are looking for a change of careers: data scientists are highly needed.
This is the monetizing side of the coin, the one that creates a we-know-your-secrets mood. It tends to make us uncomfortable, the idea that we are being followed by a system and having databases created about us. Who are they to stalk me with an ad for lingerie just because I looked at underwear on Amazon? For marketers, this is like a massive all-you-can-eat buffet with gourmet food. For us, it’s a bit irritating. Wanting to protect their privacy is natural for people, as is worrying about it being intruded. But before going into the controversy about the dangers of handling data overload, it is worth focusing on something that’s much more interesting than the business aspect. That is, the individual. What’s in it for us?
We leave behind little bits and pieces of ourselves and let it go to waste, while there are plenty of ways to turn them into something valuable. We are facing the possibility of learning more about ourselves than we can imagine. The immense proliferation of the information age is turning social sciences upside down by making the analysis of human behaviour on a population level a task involving completely new and more complex methods of communication. In the thousands of possibilities of interpreting the data available to us, there lies a path to deeper self-understanding. Let’s step away from the digital for a moment to emphasise this. There are many mysteries about ourselves that we could solve with the help of a map of our behaviour we create through… everyday living. Given that we document it. Max Winter Osterhaus has been doing exactly this, since he started creating charts and tables about his consumption behaviour (see below). Max, a product developer based in Wisconsin, USA, has been documenting literally every purchase he has made over the past five years down to the different kinds of fruit or bread. By tracking this with a meticulous attention to detail, he has recorded an incredible amount of data about himself – manually. Max spoke to Spike about the value he feels to be gaining from this, and described his goals as “visualising disparate components of a complex existence” and as “coming to terms with the realities of our needs, desires and propensities”.
This is an exceptional example of consumption tracking and the knowledge that can be built upon it. How much does each of us effectively know about their consumption behaviour? More importantly, about what it means? This doesn’t have to be about finding out that 5% of your savings last year went into buying cheddar cheese. It could be about where your high cholesterol level is coming from. Health care is a big part of the data exhaust concept, seeing as this (uncollected) information about ourselves has the invaluable potential to help predict the onset of diseases before the symptoms emerge, of identifying the most effective treatments for you and your individual needs and to spot unwanted drug interactions. Creating software to help us develop an accessible and interpretable dataset of our everyday behaviour might just be the next big step in health care. We are already close to reasonable ways of collecting this information. Think about online and mobile phone payments, a principle which could soon lead to scanning our purchases automatically and sending the information to a third base. This is indeed a very realistic concept and on the doorstep to entering our lives.
Much anticipated health instrumentation service Green Goose takes a slightly different approach in connecting health issues and the ‘Internet of Things’ (what we call the networked interconnection of everyday objects). The company has developed a game-like system to stimulate healthier behaviour. The product is a set of tiny sensors and accelerometers on stickers and credit cards, designed to track certain behavioural patterns. The stickers would be placed on, for example, your toothbrush and recognise the movement of the object when you brush your teeth. This information is sent to the Green Goose base station, which you will have placed somewhere in your home, and added to your online record of activities. The same stickers could be put onto your running shoes, bike, water bottle, pill box and literally hundreds of other objects related to the part of your life style you would like to improve. The system basically documents your everyday behaviour automatically, with the goal to encourage a healthier lifestyle and to help you keep track of it. It makes sense – chances are you will find yourself surprised at how little water you drink or how rarely you ride your bike to work, as these things aren’t something we tend to notice. It is left up to you how to interpret this information, which is still the most difficult task. More sophisticated programs could do exactly that for you and potentially connect to your doctor’s database.
And there is much more we can do with exhaust data. How about a resumé made from passively collected data, as a less manipulable insight into our lives than the little narratives we create ourselves today? Way ahead of you. Technical forum StackOverflow is doing exactly this for its users since the launch of its Careers 2.0 service in February. Users’ contribution to the site through technical answers and questions they have submitted can be turned into valuable information for potential employers, giving a genuine insight into the users’ expertise. Undoubtedly, this system is perfectly applicable to all kinds of business areas. In the near future, we may expect a platform for employers and applicants where part of the application consists of data collected from the potential employee’s online activities, be it social media, blog posts or even the online articles he/she reads. With ever more information available after all, why should employers keep relying merely on what the CV – consequently the applicant – tells them?
These are just few examples of ways to create value from exhaust data. It comes down to an often made point: devices to gather and contain the information are available; how to make sense of it is the true art. It is worth keeping an eye on the hardware, which doesn’t yet offer enough storage space to capture and process the full quantity of information available. The quantity of data grows much faster than the ability of the network to carry it, although the processing power and storage capacity of computer chips is doubling every 18 months, according to Moore’s law. And yet, music website Last.fm knows what we listen to, Kindle technology Whispersync knows what we read, and brilliant iPad app Zite collects our information to give us individualised magazines with articles we like. Our data is everywhere and it is being stored.
It raises questions of privacy and security, like all upcoming concepts involving personal information do. As deep an insight as it gives us into human behaviour, the desire to protect the captured data is a priority that has to be considered when handling it. The so-called Locker Project, brainchild of open-source guru Jeremie Miller, is an exciting idea that focusses on storing data while protecting it from third parties. Any user is encouraged to download a data capture and storage code to run it on their own server, or alternatively to sign up for a hosted service. After this, the Locker Project will pull in and start to archive all data accessible on- and offline: pictures, videos, click-stream, check-ins, twitter updates, data from real-world sensors like heart monitors, health records and transaction histories. The data extracted will be stored in your personal, private ‘locker’. Everything seems to be done right here: permissions, privacy, storage. Having access to such an extensive dataset about yourself is interesting as it is, but the room for contexts to view it in is even more immense. The team behind the Locker Project is aiming at cross-references with other sets of data, in order to make patterns in it visible which would otherwise be missed. This could reach from food recommendations back to the pre-diagnosis of medical conditions.
Until the Locker Project is launched, you can always do what Max Winter Osterhaus did and have a closer look at your life without the help of digital means. “The record keeping is less important than the analysis and I definitely believe that everyone should do this.”, he tells me about his life-map. “Not everyone wants to come face to face with the truths of their life, but I see it as an essential stepping stone to deeper understanding.”
In the age of information explosion, we are just teaching ourselves how to make action from what we are learning. And everyday we are finding out more.
A presentation by Max Winter Osterhaus on his personal consumption tracking maps and methods: