Anticipating challenges

09 January 2015


For those of you that remember the rather brilliant 1960’s television series ‘The Prisoner’ you will recall that Number 6 (we never did find out his name…) was ‘the man who knew too much’. And ‘the powers that be’ were desperate to find out what he knew.

Fast forward half a century and it seems now it is the man on the street who is desperate to know what information ‘the powers that be’ have about him. The Edward Snowden case has, I think, thrown this into sharp relief. On the one hand, it’s no great surprise that spies… spy. I think what has shocked people is the sheer amount of information that it is now possible to obtain about an individual. And on the flip side, the amount of information that people are prepared to put in the public domain about their life.

But arguing about the morality of Ed is not what I want to write about. I want to think about data analytics in general, and the ability to source new information from existing data.

Amazon have released some information this year about their ‘anticipatory shopping’ plans. Basically, they have algorithms that know what you want to buy before you do. They are betting that they can anticipate what you want to purchase, and start the shipping process before you click on ‘buy’. This means shorter delivery times and a better customer experience. In some cases this will be quite easy, in others; the algorithm will be very complex. And very interestingly it’s going to know something about me before I know it. This is intriguing to say the least and it raises more than a few challenges.

Firstly, people are going to have to accept this and be comfortable with it. There are some pretty extensive sociological changes happening in this digital world. I also wonder how this plays with the Data Protection Act and the right to have organisations send me the data they have on me. Amazon could send me the data points they use to anticipate my behaviour, but what about the results of the algorithm? Is this personal data for the purposes of The Act? I certainly haven’t directly supplied them with it. What if they haven’t run the algorithm on my data yet?

What I am getting at here is: ‘who owns information derived, or yet to be derived from my personal data’? How will this play with the man in the street who was so incensed about spies spying? Are large corporates really ‘the enemy’ or are they simply trying to be more competitive by making our lives a little easier?