We often discuss big data in the context of helping businesses improve their marketing efforts or cut back on expenses. In fact, we almost always discuss big data from a business point-of-view, rarely mentioning what it’s like on the other side, how it feels to be the audience in the era of big data analytics.
Sara M. Watson, a tech critic and Fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard, recently wrote a series on just that idea. Called Living with Data, the series explores how our information is tracked and used, and how it’s impacting our lives. It focuses on personal data stories meant to connect the effects of personal technology back to the person. The complete series can be found on Al Jazeera’s American site, but it might be worthwhile to share a brief overview on some of her discoveries and insights.
Big Data is Sharing Our Stories
Big data and social media are a match made in heaven. So much of the information companies are looking for is found on our social sites. Twitter offers deep insights into people’s feelings and moods, while Facebook gives a clear idea of what people like and respond to. However, the influence of big data use cases is now starting to be felt by its active users. Watson shares the story of a girl who went to Europe and took a bunch of pictures with her phone. When she returned, she learned Google+ had taken her best pictures, and created a digital scrapbook, detailing locations she’d been. Google did all of this without her doing a thing. How could this happen?
Companies, especially social media companies, are developing smarter algorithms that track when users are away from home, where they’ve been, and apparently which photos are best for sharing with friends. This isn’t exclusive to Google. Facebook introduced a feature celebrating its 10 year anniversary called A Look Back. It took the best pictures from our profile, and created a video slideshow. No longer are we the ones sharing our stories, programs are learning to do it for us.
Big Data is Telling Us What We Want
Watson also shares a story when she was with her husband, and he pointed out how Netflix thought they had kids. For those who’ve used Netflix, you may have recognized the Kids option next to your list of profiles. Watson realized that a few recent movie picks had lead Netflix's algorithm to think she must have children.
Netflix is doing great things with data. Not only does it suggest content based on what you’ve watched, but it’s also creating TV series based on the overall viewing habits of its subscribers. For example, the hit show House of Cards, was created by Netflix knowing full well it would be successful. This same principle extends to advertising efforts, with more and more digital ads appearing, and customized marketing tactics that fit with our online habits. We have less control over what we want. We are bombarded with suggestions, and we begin to trust packaged content over what our friends suggest, or what we actually want. We seem to think Netflix, or whomever, is more aware of what we’ll like, and we accept it.
Big Data is Killing Our Privacy
Fitness trackers are becoming very popular. Many of us are becoming increasingly concerned with healthy living, and love to track their steps, calories and other factors to help them accomplish their goals. What many might not know, is that companies are also learning and accomplishing their own goals with our information. Watson shares a story of a man who realized his sleep information was used in a survey for sleep patterns, and that it was obtained via his wearable fitness tracker.
The Internet of Things (Iot) is turning big data into big, big, data. Wearable tech, home appliances, cars, and many other everyday things are all being added to the list of interconnected internet devices. That means companies can learn even more about us. The more attached we are to the web, the more public our lives becomes. Privacy, in the sense of owning our own information, is becoming a thing of the past.