How many friends do you have on Facebook? How many followers do you boast on Twitter? How many cups of coffee did you drink last year? And how many books did you read? Numbers are defining who people are and how they think. Thanks to cellphones and the Internet collecting more and more information, it’s hard to miss the mountains of data that are associated with people.
Every time you get on the Internet or your smartphone, data is being collected about where you go, what you click on and more. Two camps have formed over how this information should be used, and the louder group is concerned with the privacy issues of collecting data. News media have been chewing out the social network Path and other mobile applications for using contact data on phones to generate friend recommendations without asking, and people have always been uneasy with sites like Amazon that track what users purchase. When customer information is stolen through a security breach, there is usually a public backlash and calls to shrink the amount of data collected.
The other group views data collection as inevitable and a clever way to make daily life better. Data guides people toward the items they want to purchase, music they want to hear and videos they’d enjoy so they don’t have to aimlessly browse the Internet. Pandora’s recommendation system doesn’t work without collecting massive amounts of data on users. The more data collected, the better tailored services can be.
One product design team member at Facebook, Nicholas Felton, has embraced data collection. Every year he gathers data from his life such as how many pictures he took in each country he’s visited or the amount of music he’s listened to. At the end of the year, he publishes an annual report in the same style that businesses use for their reports. The result is a snapshot of his life built entirely out of random statistics.
Constant data collection has become the norm. Felton has created Daytum, a website and phone application that allows people to track every statistic of their lives. As more and more users grow up in the digital age, people have grown accustomed to sharing everything about themselves. More information means better services tailored for the needs of individuals. It’s an important shift that’s creating opportunities for innovation from technology companies.
People are turning into numbers, and it’s leading to innovation. Services like Pandora and Amazon are finding ways to use those numbers to craft services that are changing how people interact with the world. Data isn’t the enemy, bur rather the path toward a more personalized future.
TJ Gunther is a senior journalism major. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.