Too Much Information, part 2: Recontextualization

The second article I want to discuss is “Data as a natural resource” by Matthew Aslett, and deals principally with the idea of transforming data—records decontextualized—into products (records recontextualized as commodities).  Aslett introduces the concept of the “data factory”, a place where data is “manufactured”.  He also highlights this in the context of “Big Data”—the current trend of accomodating larger and larger collections of information.  The problem is, “Big Data” are useless unless you can process them, analyze them, contextualize them.  Aslett suggests that the next big trend will be “Big Data Analytics”, which will focus on harnessing data sources and transforming them into products.  Assigning meaning to the raw, free-floating information, as it were.

One of the things I like about Aslett’s article is his analogy between data resources and energy resources, comparing the “data factory” with the oil industry.  Data is the new oil; useable data can be very valuable, as eBay and Facebook (Aslett’s two main examples) demonstrate.  What’s interesting about both eBay and Facebook, and why Aslett draws attention to them in particular, is that they don’t in themselves produce the data; they harness pre-existing data streams (the data “pipeline”), building on transactions that already take place, automate these transactions for their users, and parse their user data into saleable products.  In the case of Facebook, this comes in the form of ad revenue from targetted marketing, based on the most comprehensive demographic information available online (a user base of 500+ million); for eBay, it is the combination of transactional and behavioural data that identifies its top sellers and leads to increased revenue for them.  If Facebook or eBay didn’t exist, as Aslett points out, people would still communicate, share photos, buy and sell products.  They have just automated the process, and acquired the transaction records that are associated with such interactions in the process.

This makes me wonder about the ownership implications, once again, and about the Facebook terms of use I trotted out in a previous blog entry.  Is it fair for Facebook to profit off your personal information in this way?  To control your data?  Isn’t it a little worrisome that eBay and Amazon track what I buy online well enough to make quite accurate recommendations?  In terms of IAPP discussed in the last class and of David Flaherty’s list of individual rights, it is troubling to consider that, if the countless disparate traces of me online were somehow pulled together and processed, someone could construct a reasonable facsimile of me, my personality, my identity.  And isn’t this what Aslett is really talking about when he uses the word “analytics”?

Aslett, M. (2010, November 18).  Data as a natural energy source.  Too much information. Retrieved on November 26, 2010 from http://blogs.the451group.com/information_management/2010/11/18/data-as-a-natural-energy-source/

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