The Upside? of Big Data Big Brother

An article on the Big, but “quiet giant” of the multi-billion dollar database marketing industry in the New York Times describes the unknown company and its 23,000 computer servers chugging away in Conway, Arkansas.

Few have heard of Acxiom Corporation, but its database contains information about 500 million active consumers behavior, both offline and online. It’s been doing this for over 40 years, but the implications of big data when leveraged for consumer profiling and targeted marketing are just now coming under scrutiny by media and the larger public.

Besides the discovery of a company other than Facebook or Google that is in possession of a massive consumer data reservoir, this article points to a truly positive outcome when these data are leveraged.

We all know the scenario described by the New York Times: we’re looking for a printer and low and behold, the next day while scanning the sports page, the printer is pictured to our right, perhaps, now with a more competitive price, an all-to-tempting shipping fee, etc… Ultimately, we give in (or, increasingly, one could argue, as we grow more aware, more hypersensitive to every bite of data that comes to taint our banners and sidebars, we ignore it).

But what happens next in this story is actually quite revealing about the tremendous potential of ubiquitous computing consumerism and its impacts when this big data is leveraged for good. When we give in to the printer, we see an advertisement that a local school might need the one it’s replacing.

“But the multichannel system of Acxiom and its online partners is just revving up. Later, it sends him coupons for ink and paper, to be redeemed via his cellphone, and a personalized snail-mail postcard suggesting that he donate his old printer to a nearby school,” the New York Times said. This is hardly highly customized redistribution.

But you can see the potential, for say, geographic profiling to actually link this person to a school who needs a printer. Perhaps aspirational, but this could be a positive spin on big data.

What if, the next time we shop for a new skirt, the old one (we don’t kneed) finds an owner at the local salvation army where women are seeking second-hand wares for new jobs? What if, the next time, instead of sending out printer to a landfill, we ship our printer to someone who could use it, motivated in part by an all-to-tempting shipping deal appearing the second time while reading ESPN over breakfast.

While we can attack the negatives of big data, we should be examining the amazing opportunities – even when they are early orchestrated by the quiet giants in Arkansas. The burden might shift ever so slightly then to the discerning consumer, whose data can be leveraged for good.

Facebook’s Data Science Team

Facebook denizens now occupy a digital content the size of the third largest country in the world – a whopping 900 million. Although some speculate that many of these sites go unused, the numbers are still daunting when you consider Facebook’s proximity to data and now, since the introduction of time lines, our chronologed history: graduations, weddings and baby photos, family trips, and retirement.

Surprisingly, Facebook has yet to do all that much with the data it has. This is discussed in an article by MIT which looks at the cultural cul-de-sac embedded in Facebook’s headquarters, an academic research group headed by Cameron Marlow. “The group Marlow runs has escaped the public attention that dogs Facebook’s founders and the more headline-grabbing features of its business. Known internally as the Data Science Team, it is a kind of Bell Labs for the social-networking age,” MIT writer Tom Simonite says. This Facebook research group, which is expected to double in size to 24 members by the end of this year, is privy not just to our time lines, but also data about users age, gender, email and even (if users choose) about their relationship status, all at the moment of sign-up.

MIT reports that in the last five months, “Facebook catalogued more than five billion instances of people listening to songs online.” Imagine what one could do with this data alone? Given the demands of going public, Facebook will have to make better, more creative use of our data, maybe, say compare a break-up followed with a slew of sad songs – a time when, at least, I have always been susceptible to retail therapy.

Why not? Other researchon sentiment analysis of twitter text and packet-data revealing a window into depressive behavior, points to a growing preoccupation with not just our data, but our psychological states. In addition to targeting products based on our mood, some researchers suggest we could use this data to report back to us about our mood.

With big data comes big responsibility “…Marlow is confident that exploring this resource will revolutionize the scientific understanding of why people behave as they do.” It’s also a way to make money and satisfy the growing number of disgruntled Facebook investors.