Big Data and the Business of Mind-Reading
February 16, 2017
Big data is playing an increasing role in people’s lives.
Loosely defined as data that is too massive to be contained or processed
by any one machine or person, it includes information on individuals’
Facebook likes, supermarket loyalty cards, and other seemingly innocuous
personal information that was used by both the Trump and Brexit
campaigns to reach voters who wouldn’t normally disclose their political
Finding out more about people
Apps created by researchers in Britain and the United States can guess
how old a person is, their IQ, and to whom they are sexually attracted.
“There’s lots of different sources for sentiment data,” said John Kreisa,
a London-based executive at Hortonworks, a California software company.
“One probably very obvious one is things like Twitter. Social media in
general is a way that people express themselves and express a like or
dislike, sentiments obviously positive or negative,” Kreisa said.
By themselves, the trillions of bits of information would amount to a
pile of worthless junk. Add the power of the human mind, and it is a
When Julian Dailly graduated from the University of Sussex with a degree
in English and philosophy and faced a world dominated by machines and
technology, he wondered how he was going to make a living. Now, he is
part of a mega industry that, considering it includes Google and
Facebook, is so large no one seems able to estimate its worth.
Predicting what people will do
Dailly’s research company, Morar Consulting, started three years ago
with five employees. With annual revenues up by 25 percent each year,
Dailly’s firm now has a staff of 90.
“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.
Diversity, he adds, is important.
“There’s always the risk I think if you have people from too similar
backgrounds that you end up with a bit of group think. You don’t
consider all the alternatives, and you maybe take too many bets on the
same thing,” Dailly said. “We have people from traditional research
backgrounds, in addition to some in social sciences, economics, people
from tech backgrounds, and sales people.”
Companies like Dailly’s also draw recent college graduates who bring
perspectives of youth to the industry.
New forms of data also make it possible for analysts to predict the
future. They are thus 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
Both the Clinton and Trump campaigns used big data, with Trump hiring
the London-based Cambridge Analytica. The company employs a trademark
method known as “psychographs” that uses psychological profiling to
influence consumers. The company also provided its services to the
Both the Trump and the Brexit campaigns faced charges of xenophobia, a
topic many people preferred not to discuss.
For both Trump and Brexit, polls had predicted Election Day losses. But
their victories hinged on voters who had remained quiet during the
campaign, often declining to publicly state their opinions out of
concern of being labeled as racist.
Big Data beat the polls
Polls did not tell the truth, but big data did.
“You just rely on data that you collect at the polls, you’re not going
to be able to gather the same amount of data, but also people might lie
or might not reveal whom they will vote for or what way they are going
to vote,” said Tamara Chehayeb Makarem, a user experience designer at
Scott Logic, a British software development consultancy.
“Using big data, you would be able to generate certain patterns, and
what people like,” she said. “Let’s say what you like something on
Facebook, if you publish certain articles, follow certain people. That
could give them (campaign strategists) 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 prospect of having companies read minds is spooky, and there has
been pushback. Facebook has blocked the use of much of its content and
the European Union has enacted some of the world’s toughest privacy
Many uses for Big Data
Proponents of the industry are eager to show that big data is a force
Laurie Miles, director of analytics at SAS UK, an analytics company
whose clients include HSBC. He says the ability to capture and process
data in real time is crucial for protecting credit card users.
go into a shop, you swipe your card,” she said. “In real time, it’s
determined whether that transaction is likely to be fraudulent or not.”
Dailly, of Morar Consulting, discounts concerns that computers have
finally taken over.
“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,” he said.
Artificial intelligence will evolve and so will their autonomy to make
decisions, he said.
“But fundamentally, they will always be plugged into the wall. They can
be turned off. With that in mind, humans will still remain in control.”