It goes without saying that modern-day society has become more complex than ever before. Although we might like to pretend that our mastery of tools and technology has made it easier or better for us on an individual level, the reality is that it has never been harder to simply live life to the full. As Britton Hadden, founder of Time Magazine once said:
‘Everyday living is too fast, too busy, too complicated. More than at any time in history, it’s important to have good information on just about every aspect of life. And, there is more information available than ever before. Too much infact. There is simply no time for people to gather and absorb the information they need.’
Although tools and technology give us choices, more choice means more complexity.
Centuries ago, life consisted of hunting, eating, and procreating. Stone arrowheads were state of the art, tool-wise. Eventually, new materials were created and new tools devised (such as iron, paper, plastics and eventually computer chips), and society grew increasingly more complex (trade, diplomacy, religion and the development of global media). But has the geek inherited the earth?
At present, it appears that not only the geek, but also the organization to own the most personally affiliated data rules the world. For some, the term ‘big data’ has been coined to describe this exponential growth which encompasses the availability and use of information, both structured and unstructured.
Much has been written about big data in recent times and how it can serve as the basis for innovation, differentiation and growth but as 2014 looms, large enterprises collecting this data will increasingly be called upon to offer greater transparency. If we’re honest, we can see that the internet is a big data jungle and much of its power lies in not only making social comparisons, but in gaining an understanding of what your relationship is with your friends, market or audience. Furthermore, the smart use of data has the potential to unlock value and insight across the board, which is why for many organisations, strategic implementation and using the right tools to create relationships in target communities is essential.
So how are consumers reacting to the big data revolution? In general, many worry about losing their personal identity and anonymity by handing over their email addresses, friends or locations and an increasing amount of people are choosing the security of cloud computing, allowing them to access resources anytime and from anywhere without the need to download their information.
Furthermore, most are aware, for instance, that the photos they publish are stored, but not that other information, like their camera type, lens or geolocation can also be part of a user’s history. Few know that when signing up for an app it is in fact tracking ‘vibration information,’ and even fewer would guess that it was extrapolating transportation data such as whether you were on a bike or in a car.
This lack of anonymity has been recognised and addressed by Visible Nation, the world’s first social comparison service. Unlike most traditional social comparison sites, Visible Nation’s recognizes that the fact that humans are innately aware of comparison. As a result, the platform helps people understand life and make better decisions, eliminating inaccurate data that distracts and confuses by creating a free online resource to share and deliver personal insights based on comparisons, while protecting their privacy.
Allan Ireland Park, founder of Visible Nation explains explains: ‘’More and more people are starting to feel threatened by the concept and power of big data. But while many start to withdraw for fear of having their private information fall into the hands of the wrong organisation, we are seeing the positive side and believe that Information = knowledge and knowledge = power. We believe in harnessing the power of big data and providing it to the individual. The more data you share the more you can receive, so if everyone inputs their anonymous information into our tool we can all benefit, taking the power away from larger organisations in the process.
“Obviously Facebook has opened us up to the possibilities of sharing experiences online, but these tend to be only one part of our lives, i.e. the good bits. We need social data to be honest to allow us to make real decisions. Sharing photos and comments online has become the norm but status updates don’t tell the whole story. Sharing ‘useful’ information creates much better data and we are aiming to contribute to that.”
The company’s strategy also centres on the belief that anonymised data is the way forward and is imperative to its success. Allan Ireland Park continues: “We believe that while people tend to be overly upbeat on social networks, if they are encouraged to anonymously rate their lives in return for a comparison with others, they may have a far more realistic world view. Our users feel safe enough to upload their data and in return, are rewarded by the value they receive. This is a truly social transaction.”
As Gary King from Harvard University once said: “Big Data is not about data” but more about analytics. Too much freely avaliable information does not help us understand our lives better (personally and scientifically speaking) so the added value comes from effective analysis. Numbers do not speak for themselves so Visible Nation has the unique ability to analyze key data whilst helping people on an individual level. Sign-up is quick and completely free and new users are presented with a set of nine categories that are central to their lives. In return for completing these nine sections, they then receive important facts about their lifestyle and are presented with a set of easy to use charts and tools to view themselves and compare to groups of their choice.
Another growing issue is of information stored on social networks being used by governments to track behaviour and ideology. It is becoming increasingly common for open-data enthusiasts using big data to publicize information society can’t get from government sources. Most recently, a group of developers produced a Hong Kong ‘Food Poisoning Map’ combining government information with crowd-sourced reports and data from OpenRice, a private dining guide. Another group at Hong Kong University used the popular networking site Sina Weibo to analyse government censorship in China, capturing information about popular users’ posts in order to see what had been deleted. But more recently, researchers from Harvard University
(http://christakis.med.harvard.edu/pdf/publications/articles/090.pdf) collected profiles of college Facebook users and released this dataset for other scholars to freely browse through and stigmatise. None of the students were asked for permission and were not aware that their profiles had been gathered although researchers found that it was rather easy to deanonymize and link data with the personal Facebook profiles. Yet another example of how ethical issues of anonymity and using personal data without permission were (and are still) widely discussed in the social sciences.
Interestingly, big data is also becoming more and more responsible for the continued rise in popularity of online dating. For years, research agencies have been selling match-making services, based on a complete analysis of people’s habits, tastes and desires, as well as ‘proprietary’ matching algorithms (or gut instinct). Infact, big data now democratizes match-making, combining people’s Facebook activity, check-ins and geolocalization data, web browsing history, shopping habits, travel history, photo albums, our favourite restaurants and bars and in some cases, even our financial, medical and criminal records. People no longer need to fill-in lengthy questionnaires and the process prevents most from lying about what they really like or feel!
So in order for big data to become effective, the right tools are needed in the right environment to help us. But do we need deeper levels of data to enable more interesting comparisons? Poorly structured online data and knowledge has put blockers on our natural ability to make key decisions and after all, poor decisions are generally based on poor or irrelevant information.
Moving forward, many see the role of developers as key to playing a greater role in privacy protection, creating tools that allow users to visualize and easily reconfigure their company’s data policies. But should privacy and security be on the agenda from the very beginning?
About Visible Nation
Visible Nation is the world’s first social comparison service. Our mission is to help you to make better choices by fundamentally changing the way you make your lifestyle decisions.
We want to eliminate inaccurate information that distracts and confuses by creating a free online resource that will deliver personal insight based on comparisons, while protecting your privacy.
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