Everywhere we go online, we leave digital breadcrumbs. Not only do we scatter them behind us when we navigate the web, use our smartphones or even drive our cars, but corporations, the government and other organizations are vacuuming up these breadcrumbs with abandon. What are we to make of all this data collection (read our personal information) and how are we to think about? From my perspective as a marketer and corporate strategist, I think it’s helpful to think of this in five categories: the opportunity for enterprises for the secondary, or tertiary, uses of this data; the enterprise use of social data in evaluating the quality of participants in a conversation; the use of sensors in an Internet of Things environment to capture data; personal information as currency; and, finally, what I like to call the privacy-creepiness factor. All of this, of course, comes under the heading of the good, the bad, and the ugly of big data.
Undergirding all this collection and processing of data and deriving insights from them is the simple fact that without the exponential increases in computational power we’ve seen in recent decades none of this would have been possible. Consider one use of tertiary data that was before never collectible: Amazon can tell book authors whose readers use its Kindle how far a reader gets into a book before stopping, or even the average page-turning speed. Conceivably, authors could then use this data to know where their books gain or lose momentum with readers and adjust their future books accordingly.
The use of tertiary data such as these will become only more prevalent in our everyday lives, transforming into ways that enterprises can use our normal human actions as data points upon which they can optimize and refine their products. This tertiary data has further implications as well, because it’s not only the mere collection of that data, it is even more so the way that individuals or organizations can use this data to create new business models. To me, this is a profound opportunity and one that only comes about because of the massive amounts of data now being aggregated in the cloud and the massive compute power that can be applied to that data.
The application of this data collection and measurement is relevant as well to the Unified Communications and Collaboration industry. These heretofore unmanageable and tertiary data can now be used to monitor individuals’ participation in conversations, meetings and projects at a granular level. By constructing the right matrices and algorithms, companies could gain the ability to assess the performance of employees, consultants, partners, or anyone in the business ecosystem. You would never be able to hide in a meeting again. There’s obviously a good and an ugly side to such a process. On the ugly side, there is the undeniable Big Brother element to all of this. On the upside, it could get easier to identify and eliminate nonproductive meetings.
Relevant to the role of UC and Collaboration in this debate over data is the burgeoning world of the Internet of Things (IoT). Sensors are part and parcel of IoT, but it’s not in the way most people probably think of them. These sensors are not only measuring how many revolutions per minute the blades on your house fan turn. They are in wearable fitness tracking devices and in smartphones and other devices that “listen,” waiting for a particular phrase before engaging. And all this data is getting pumped up into the cloud. It’s not so much that these data are captured, it’s how the data is used when captured that is the concern around sensors as IoT takes off. Also, another worry about sensors is that you are not always able to switch them off.
With more and more data (our clicks, locations, phone calls, text messages, the mobile apps we use, etc.) being collected and crunched, at what point does our own personal information become a form of currency in its own right? Increasingly, people are starting to say, wait, that’s my data and I should be able to decide how it is being used and perhaps even get paid for it. Of course, with sites such as Facebook and others, there is a yin and a yang to this. On one hand, consumers are willing to give up vast troves of personal data in exchange for using Facebook at no charge. On the other, consumers will give away that information but if it were used without their permission, most would deem that objectionable. I fully expect that before much longer we will develop a way to watermark (I need to give credit here to Jaron Lanier and his book, “Who Owns the Future”) our personal data such that it can become a currency. No matter where that data goes in the world, they are personally identifiable as my data. So, just like in the old days when a record was played on the radio and the artist would receive a royalty, now I would receive a micropayment when my data is used to promote a particular product.
Of course, coursing through all of this discussion is my final point, which is the privacy-creepiness factor. With the use of tertiary data to create new business models or evaluate performance, what boundaries do we create in outlining acceptable and unacceptable uses of such data? When it comes to IoT devices and sensors, what triggers and parameters ought we use to govern the use of the collected data? When it comes to personal information used to promote a product in exchange for financial remuneration, how do consumers and companies negotiate the terms of such a contract in the real-time context of e-commerce and the Internet? I don’t presume to have the answers to these questions, but we will need to ferret them out.
What are your thoughts on our digital breadcrumbs and how individuals and enterprises can monetize them? What’s right and what’s wrong when it comes to the debate of the digital data exchange?