The Middle Ages used a phrase to describe a term that was not meaningful as “a distinction without a difference.” Oftentimes, in the desire to catch a technological/marketing wave, salespeople and consultants overuse terms coined to describe one thing to mean something entirely different. Not long ago, I was reading an article in the New York Times about department stores tracking their customers by using their wireless devices, using their movement through their stores to predict what they were interested in and what they bought. The article described this as yet another instance of the importance of Big Data. The more I read, the more I found this reference both comical and disturbing.
Clearly, there was nothing necessarily big about the data involved here. The amount of data needed to be collected and saved was relatively minor in order to track the potential customers, what they might have looked at, and what they bought. Indeed, the data in this case had nothing really to do with Big Data other than it might be thought of as “social media data,” with which Big Data is becoming unfortunately synonymous. What was happening was that organizations were simply finding cheap (and secret) ways to use data accidentally provided by people with mobile devices simply moving through their stores in order to have more insight into what people were interested in and to see if the layout of the store or the prices had any impact on purchases.
Now, if you can connect the dots between this information with the actual purchases — which is not difficult, especially those purchases made with credit cards — then one does create a set of data that can be analyzed to create a real-time customer base and, based on customers’ movement through the store at various points in time, will allow a company indeed to predict enough to send them email or flyers or whatever. But this is in no way Big Data; this is simply traditional marketing data collected in a new way. Calling this Big Data may increase the interest in Big Data conferences, but it seems to me that somewhere along the line we’re going to need to clear up our language so we’re talking about the right things.
Also, there is the question of “unauthorized” or “incidental” data collection. One of the things mentioned in the New York Times article was the issue of privacy. The article suggested that once customers (or potential customers) were informed that the store would be tracking their movements in the store, they were visibly upset. Although neither the article nor the video that the article linked to seemed to take much stock in this fact. All of this reflects back on a bigger issue with Big Data, which is that people are becoming more aware that social/wireless media allows organizations to secretly track people based on their day-to-day activities. To many people, this activity is becoming increasingly intrusive. While people may agree that a store might better be able to support their current or future customers by doing this kind of collection and integration of personal credit data, we know from recent experiences with government surveillance that this information is or can be used to manipulate people beyond what the public expects.
Each day, as my family, my acquaintances, and I use (and are used by) social media and the Internet, we become more apprehensive. Each time I go to a website and am intercepted by a “you have been picked to be part of an important survey” screen, I attribute this to either the marketing department of the website that I want to visit or to Google or to whichever search engine that got me there. And I get just a little angrier at the website for abusing my time and information. If the information industry is not careful, instead of creating more sales through Internet interest, it will create fewer. In the process, Big Data is in danger of coming to mean Bad Data.