Computer Data and the Business of Mind-Reading

21 February, 2017

Big data is having an increasing effect on the way we live.

Big data can be defined as information that is too big or complex to be contained or processed by any one machine or person. It can include which comments, photographs or stories you "like" on Facebook's website.

It also includes seemingly harmless personal information that political campaigns use to reach voters.

The presidential election campaign of Donald Trump used big data to reach American voters who normally would not share their opinions with others. It also helped organizers of the campaign to end Britain's membership in the European Union, known as Brexit.

Finding out more about people

John Kreisa works in London for Hortonworks, a computer software company that started in California. He says there are lots of ways to measure a person's feelings.

"One probably very obvious one is things like Twitter," he says. "Social media, in general, is a way that people express themselves and express a like or dislike..."

By themselves, the trillions of bits of information would just be a collection of countless facts, many of which are considered worthless. But add the power of the human mind and it is a different story.

As a student at the University of Sussex, Julian Dailly had two majors -- English and philosophy. When he completed his studies, Dailly wondered how he would ever earn a living in a world filled with machines and technology. Now, he is part of an industry that includes Google and Facebook. It is so large no one seems able to estimate its worth.

FILE - Hortonworks, Inc.Hortonworks, Inc., a California software company, opened for trading on The Nasdaq Stock Market, Dec. 12, 2014.
FILE - Hortonworks, Inc.Hortonworks, Inc., a California software company, opened for trading on The Nasdaq Stock Market, Dec. 12, 2014.

Predicting what people will do

Dailly's research company, Morar Consulting, started three years ago with five employees. The company's earnings have increased by 25 percent each year. It now employs 90 people.

"What we ultimately do here is we try to discover what's meaningful for people and we correlate that to their economic behavior," Dailly said.

He noted the importance of working with people with different skills.

"We have people from traditional research backgrounds, in addition to some in social sciences, economics, people from tech backgrounds, and sales people," Dailly said.

Companies like Dailly's employ recent college graduates. The industry profits from the ideas of these young men and women.

New forms of data also make it possible for some observers to predict the future. They are more valuable to companies and campaigns than the traditional forms of recordkeeping, recording, or reporting data.

"We have access to the core information inside people's heads," Dailly said. "They tell you what people are going to do as opposed to what they've done. That helps people take preemptive action. This makes it much more useful for strategy."

Brexit, Trump and Clinton used this new data

The presidential election campaigns of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump both used big data last year.

Trump's aides employed a London-based company called Cambridge Analytica. It used a method known as "psychographs." This method uses information about a person's behavior to influence their decisions. Cambridge Analytica also provided its services to the Brexit campaign.

Both the Trump and the Brexit campaigns were accused of xenophobia, an issue many people did not to discuss. Xenophobia is defined as the fear or hatred of foreigners.

For both Trump and Brexit, opinion polls had predicted election-day losses. But their victories depended on voters who had remained quiet during the campaign. Those voters may have refused to publicly state their opinions out of concern of being labeled racist.

Big Data beat the polls

Opinion surveys did not tell the truth, but big data did.

Big data lets you document certain behavior and what people like, says Tamara Chehayeb. She works at Scott Logic, a British company that advises software developers.

"Let's say...if you publish certain articles, follow certain people," she noted. "That could give them (campaign aides) an indicator about your views and based on that they could get a better indication about how likely you are to vote for someone or something."

The possibility of having businesses read minds is frightening for some. And there has been pushback. Facebook, for example, has blocked the use of much of its informational content to non-users. The European Union has enacted some of the world's strongest privacy protections.

Many uses for Big Data

Supporters of the industry are ready to show that big data is a force for good.

Laurie Miles is director of analytics at SAS UK. The company assists the financial services company HSBC Bank. He says the ability to capture and process data in real time is important for protecting credit card users.

Julian Dailly dismisses concerns that computers have finally taken control of our daily lives.

"There is a moment of suspension of disbelief when we allow ourselves to believe that humans will be allowed to be replaced by machines. I think it's a fantasy."

"But fundamentally, they (computers) will always be plugged into the wall. They can be turned off. With that in mind, humans will still remain in control."

I'm Kaveh Razaei.

And I'm Lucija Millonig.

Luiz Ramirez reported on this story for VOANews. George Grow adapted his report for Learning English. Ashley Thompson was the editor.

Words in This Story

bit – n. a piece of information

correlate – v. to establish a relationship between two or more things

indicator – n. a measure or sign

view – n. opinion

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