Who owns the ‘little data’ that makes ‘big data’?

Over the past year we have written a number of blogs about businesses and consumers and the changing dynamics between both groups. These include, “Who’s in charge now”, ‘’To whom are we accountable?”, “A gift of time”, “7 Consumer Megatrends”, “Killing off customers”, “8 Global Consumer Trends”, and “Digital business – a customer’s perspective”. There is a common theme behind all these blogs – that many businesses are struggling to truly understand their customers (and what is important to them in all senses) and that customers are becoming more concerned and active when it comes to what businesses are permitted to do (and not do!) when both interact. As that power shift continues, there are some interesting associated trends. Here is one relating to ‘big data’.

‘Big data’

It’s become a buzzword. ‘Big data’ mining and management is said to be the big opportunity of the future. But what is ‘big data’? In essence it is simply a huge heap of little bits of data, the vast majority of which are generated at the individual level - especially in the consumer world. What are you buying? Where are you buying it? What are your buying habits? How did you pay for it? What are you clicking on? And a whole lot more. The question is who really owns this data – the behind the scenes intermediaries who are gathering and mining it for a profit or the individuals who largely created it in the first place and who get nothing for it and have little or no idea about who is using their ‘little data’ - and for what purpose.

The “Comsumer Manifesto”

The Comsumer Manifesto was conceived by Stuart Henshall and published online in ‘First Monday’ way back in May 2000. In the introduction to this article Henshall says, “This article offers a disruptive antidote to the hierarchical, closed, supply-system, explicit, knowledge-driven, ‘We Know What You Want’ data mine world where many customers feel powerless. This is a world well beyond 1999's ‘Net Worth’ and 2000's ‘The Cluetrain Manifesto’. Infomediaries are not just trustworthy agents which sit between the vendor and the customer and markets are not just conversations. In this new world, communities sense needs, desires, and wishes for the future and create new data markets - to which organizations must respond or die! We are closing in on the ‘tipping point’ where COMsumers take complete control of their destiny by collectively owning their personal information assets.” A very foresightful article!

Since this was published the ‘Infomediaries’ largely remain in charge and have become more sophisticated in the way they gather data. They then use it to subtly ‘manipulate’ web-users to encourage them to buy certain goods and services. It has become ubiquitous and almost insidious. You check a business website on Google and soon after Google ads pop-up that continuously expose you to the same or related businesses. It is as if you are being spied on 24/7/365 and that you are powerless to control your valuable personal data stream and, what is even more disconcerting, gain any benefit from it being ‘data-mined’. It is a quite intimate invasion of privacy. On the other hand, social media has empowered the individual to quickly communicate satisfaction or dissatisfaction with the way they are treated by businesses e.g. this famous Delta Airlines ‘guitar smashing’ video on YouTube. The gap between what businesses do and consumers expect is often still a yawning chasm and not well understood. That gap is all about trust, and ‘big data’ mining does not encourage trust if our own ‘little data’ is included in it and used in ways we don’t understand and for purposes we may feel quite uncomfortable about – in the same way we would feel if a burglar breaks into our home and steals things that are our own personal items. It is a violation of our private worlds.

Is a change coming?

It’s early days yet but we are starting to see some interesting developments that may change the power balance. The little bits of data that make up ‘big data’ are only valuable if they are authentic. But when the little bits of data become corrupted, then their value within ‘big data’ is diminished and this then becomes a threat to the credibility and authenticity of ‘big data’ mining. One example of a way consumers can get back at those who are ‘stealing’ their data by corrupting it is an evolving application called “AdNauseum”. This is how the developers describe it. “As online advertising is becoming more automatic, universal and unsanctioned, ‘AdNauseam’ works to complete the cycle by automating all ad-clicks universally and blindly on behalf of the target audience. Working in coordination with your ad blocker, ‘AdNauseam’ quietly clicks every blocked ad, registering a visit on the ad networks databases. As the data gathered shows an omnivorous click-stream, user profiling, targeting and surveillance becomes futile.” Revenge!

The lesson for business?

Digitalisation is not only empowering businesses but also consumers. Whilst the ‘Comsumer Manifesto’ from the year 2000 has not been realised to any significant extent, more and more consumers are becoming concerned about their privacy and the way it is being invaded by those who collect their ‘little data’ and then collate, analyse and utilise ‘big data’. AdNauseum may be one of an increasing number of ways in which consumers can get back at those who are exploiting their ‘little data’ for the benefit of others by corrupting and diminishing the value of ‘big data’ mining. As Einstein once said, ‘for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction’. Adnauseum is just one example of the way that consumers are able to react to todays’ insidious and ubiquitous ‘big data’ mining actions - and perhaps make a stand about the way their ‘little data’ is being exploited. Not quite what the ‘Comsumer Manifesto’ envisaged but an interesting development in the ongoing power play between consumers and businesses online!