As major corporations scramble either to put big data plans in place or to appear to be doing so for the sake of corporate reputation, an even more fascinating front in the data revolution is opening up for you and me. The introduction of sensors into everyday life and their interconnectivity through mobile devices is one of the places where the art of mining data gets personal. In the next few years, the most exciting data gathering arena will be the ways companies can make analytics into a product feature or a value-added service.
We’ve already seen this theme in the first wave of personal-fitness sensors. At least a couple of vendors, including Nike, offer wearable devices that help monitor activity and connect back to your smartphone and the web for personal analytics. My own wife, who is smartphone-averse, has already embraced the most basic Nike app and its simple charting of her daily runs. A number of celebrity athletes whom she cannot identify congratulate her at the end of every session, whether she actually achieved a laudable milestone are not. “It is sort of like an overly solicitous helicopter parent,” she says. “It tells me that I did a ’good job’ even when I succeeded only in not keeling over. Everyone gets a trophy.”
Ogilvy Brazil and Kimberly-Clark’s Huggies brand is bringing the personal sensor into another bizarre realm, your baby’s crotch. The TweetPee device that it is testing in the Brazilian market attaches to the business part of a disposable diaper and communicates to an iPhone app when your baby has peed. Silly as this may seem, I speak as a parent of a daughter who resolutely refused to give up the fact that her diaper was a water balloon about to burst. To be honest, this dad could’ve used a second sensor on the back ofs the diaper, but let’s not go into that.
This simple alert that the baby may need changing of course can be aggregated and analyzed. Yes, your baby pee is raw data that can be put to good use. The parent can see how much disposable diaper stock he or she has left, track out patterns of usage and project future needs. In a bizarre way, the TweePee shows that just about every human activity can be quantified into useful data.
Just like big data itself is a bit overhyped as something wholly new on the corporate scene, the emerging trend in personal analytics is hardly unprecedented. We have always had bean counters among us in every family, from the obsessive-compulsive dad who runs household finances with the ruthlessness of a company efficiency expert, to the super-officious mom who had to parse a limited budget across the month. You may have run across some of these types in your grocery store packing coupon folders as large and orderly as a library catalog. The data miners have always been here. After all, some of us can remember when schools had classes called “home economics."
What the new age of connected sensors does offer the individual consumer, just like big data itself, is a much broader sampling of data points and more holistic integration. But even more to the point, it allows inefficient types like myself to engage in analytics without the effort that it traditionally took to input the data to begin with. Now we have sensors that will do the recording for us and handheld computers that can slice and dice the data in creative ways. This becomes the great opportunity for manufacturers and brands. To create products that give us unique insight into our own lives and can add efficiencies at every turn -- that is the very definition of value.
From a marketing and merchandising perspective, of course, these very same personal analytics systems potentially could render to brands an amazing depth of knowledge about how products are used in their customers' lives. On one level the privacy considerations here could be enormous, since the sensors are surfacing genuinely intimate levels of detail. On the other hand, they could actually help simplify privacy questions because they make very explicit the kinds of tracking and data that a company is collecting. When data becomes this explicitly useful to the consumer, it's no longer lost in that confusing world of online cookies moving across countless websites and supposedly resulting in more relevant advertising. Now consumers see the value of the data exchange demonstrated very clearly and in a personal way, and they are in a better position to decide whether this kind of data is worth sharing for this service.
As just about every successful household efficiency expert and even dieter will tell you, data is control. The person who has a closer eye on the money that is going in and out of the household is the one who usually succeeds in saving more. The dieter who weighs herself regularly is the one who is keeping that goal in mind most often. And so, when companies can create products out of sensors and connected devices that make this process easier for a broader swath of people, they have the opportunity to sell something that is unique and absolutely invaluable: mastery, control. Generations of self-help gurus have made billions off this promise. Imagine what happens when you take that great selling point and strip it of the real taste of snake oil.