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.