Dirk Knemeyer

The Digital Life #189: Human Behavior Data as Asset

Episode Summary

On this episode of The Digital Life, we discuss how data on human behavior has become an increasingly important asset in the 21st century. We start with an examination of Uber Movement, which offers access to the company’s data on traffic flow — meant for use by city planners and researchers looking for ways to improve urban mobility. This is a global data trove with information from cities all over the world, and it reflects the growing use of data assets by tech companies to influence local and national policy and law. Data on human behavior will be come an increasingly important asset in the years ahead. We can already see how Amazon, Netflix and Uber are using the data at their disposal as leverage. The big question is: what comes next?

Jon: Welcome to episode 189 of the Digital Life. A show about our insights into the future of design and technology. I’m your host Jon Follett, and with me is founder and co-host Dirk Knemeyer.

Dirk: Greetings listeners.

Jon: On this episode of the Digital Life, we’re going to discuss a little bit about how data on human behavior has become an increasingly important asset in the 21st century, and an example that came across my desktop this week was from everybody’s favorite ride hailing service Uber, which is making data available via it’s website called Movement, which more or less offers access to the company’s data around traffic flow in all the cities where it operates. This is meant for use by the city’s planners, the researchers, the analysts, the policy makers who are interested in improving the way that cities operate and the way we are able to get around our urban environments. This is aggregated data, so you won’t be able to figure out where a person, any person in particular is going, and they have anonymized it of course, so to address the privacy question, but this really is a pretty amazing global trove of data that Uber is making available.

First off it’s data from cities, from Manila to Boston to Sydney right? It’s data that reflects how transportation works in all of these cities, in fact the case studies, one of their case studies was holiday traffic in Manila, or understanding the impact of the D.C. Metro when it shut down. This is pretty incredible access and availability of this data, and it’s interesting, it’s not always clear what the motivations of Uber might be, but in this case I think we can pretty safely say that this is a smart move to influence policy and to design policy. Uber is not doing this out of the goodness of their corporate heart.

Dirk: No they’re not.

Jon: In making this available, maybe this is the new lobbying, is making your data available, because it can influence policy makers in ways that are a lot more powerful than writing a donation check I think. Dirk, when you heard about this offering, what were the first impressions that you had?

Dirk: I am certainly an Uber skeptic. The bro culture at Uber is well known and has been written about. The mistreatment and misrepresentation or under representation of women at the company is well documented. I’m not a big fan of Uber. I use the service because it’s a great convenience for me, but that’s because I don’t value my convenience as much as my opinion, and so my opinion is very negative about Uber. I’m sorry to say. I’m skeptical. Uber is waging war with municipalities all around the world to get into the markets, to get the right legislation on their side, and it’s with mixed results.

To me this is a PR salvo. Maybe there’s somebody in Uber or certainly part of it is hey, this solves our PR problem and look, it’s kind of a good thing too. Amen, I’m sure … I’m not so cynical as to think there’s zero of their doing it for positive reasons, but this is a rotten company, and it’s a rotten company that’s looking to improve it’s image and improve it’s business prospects by virtue of doing something that he ignorant media is happy to position as something that’s more holistically serving. Make no mistake, this is about Uber making more money and it certainly doesn’t change my opinion of Uber which is obviously quite negative.

Jon: Yeah I think it’s interesting to me the intimacy of the data. We’re only beginning to see the start of what’s possible with say the internet of things and having sensors and devices in your house that are really delivering information to providers whether they be companies or nonprofits or what have you. There’s this digital connection that you make between yourself and your service provider that becomes increasingly intimate for lack of a better word. Even though this is anonymized data and I get that, it’s all about how we move throughout the day, how we’re going to work, going to play, going home. I think this is just the tip of the iceberg in so far as it’s a little creepy how much we’re tracked and measured now, and I realize that this is … When we live in such large groups in cities, that this is the information that in aggregate is going to make all of our lives better because then you can plan for ways that there won’t be as much congestion or the ways that metro service or subway service can get you places faster or serve underserved areas. Any number of great things.

At the same time, this data fabric that we’re creating is also attaching us to corporate interests in ways that I don’t even know how to process yet. I’ll give you another example from a company that maybe we liked a little better than Uber, say.

Dirk: Let’s hope so.

Jon: Which is Netflix right? Netflix secret sauce is of course that they know everything that you like to watch, and part of Netflix …

Dirk: Does that remain their secret sauce? It used to be. Keep going, keep going, keep going, sorry.

Jon: For that company, it’s definitely what they’re leveraging to invest in these series that other people wouldn’t think to invest in right? The little sci-fi movie that was done on a budget that other folks won’t buy, Netflix might buy and put in front of just the right people. Those right people maybe being myself who would love to watch an indie sci-fi flick.

Dirk: Shane Carruth Jon. Watch the movies of Shane Carruth.

Jon: All right, I’ll put that on the wishlist to watch.

Dirk: Primer and Upstream Color, for my money he’s the best director out there today. Keep going.

Jon: All right. Yes, so sci-fi aside, Netflix as all this information which they’re able to plow into their own productions to make their own content right? That gives them insight into what we’re watching for enjoyment, what we’re watching maybe for information from documentaries. When we’re watching, what our habits are around that. It’s similar to the type of data that Uber has, but in the case of Netflix, maybe it feels more like it’s a service than something else. A 3rd example of that of course, are all our purchasing habits, and let me tell you, Amazon is where I buy just about everything right? That’s where all my Christmas shopping gets done. In fact, I mean I think you can go through my Amazon history and just see exactly what was going on in my life at the time.

Dirk: Me too, yeah.

Jon: These are data tendrils, these are the footprints of our lives that we’re leaving in cyberspace, and it’s an asset. Data is this new material asset that companies are aggregating, they’re using, they’re licensing, they’re going to combine with other data. This isn’t so much a paranoid rant as it is a reflection on what a unique and powerful asset this is, and just the thought that as design material, it’s very very relatively new, and I think it could have some tremendous benefits for us, but I can also see where there’s the potential for problems as well.

Dirk: Yeah, the issue is right now it’s dumb data, so Netflix for example, very intelligently can push to us what we’re going to like to watch, and figure out what things to make to determine what we’ll enjoy. Their ownership of that data isn’t that valuable. If I … It’s convenient that I’ve rated a bajillion things on Netflix, and that is all there, but if I left Netflix tomorrow for some new service, I’m not losing that much. The data for me as the consumer, it doesn’t do much. It helps them maintain their business model of getting $12.99 a month out of me, fine, but beyond that, it doesn’t have a more over arching value. I’ll say the same thing for Amazon. Amazon purchases. Those are even stupider because I don’t think that Amazon, that’s probably really, I’m naïve. I’m sure Amazon is using those things to figure out how to push things towards me that I would be more likely to buy, but it still is dumb.
There’s going to come a time, and it’s decades away, not years, when a machine can interpret that data and can draw conclusions about me as an individual. Conclusions that would draw me to date better people, draw me to pursue a better career. Draw me to spend my time in ways that are better for me. Draw me to … Plans to work around my weaknesses, or to proactively work with my genomic data to have me doing things or buying things, or behaving in context to make it less likely I die at an early age. That’s when it’s smart and that’s when it’s interesting.

Right now it’s being levered for capital gain which is fine and good, but it’s just not that interesting. If I left Amazon or left Netflix, it really matters very very little. There’s other places to buy products, and certainly there’s other places to watch shows. Now if anything, that market is overly saturated with Hulu and Amazon and others. The point I want to make is that yeah, in these waves that allow a company to be successful in capitalism, it’s great, but in terms of doing really meaningful things or things that matter to me where I’d be like oh my God, I’m going to keep my Netflix for the rest of my life, because leaving it would just be too catastrophic, it’s just nowhere near that. To me, that’s when this data will become really interesting, is the decades down the road when they understand the human animal well enough to use machine power to translate the choices we make into really really changing our lives.

Jon: Yeah, that’s an interesting take on it. I think of course we’re just at the very beginnings of this kind of data aggregation and analysis and using that both in public and private forums to … Whether it’s creating municipal policy or trying to sell you more stuff. I do think it’s going to get very interesting as this data gets cross pollinated and you can start to see the way people’s habits overlap. For instance, Amazon Pantry, it would be interesting to know what kinds of foods people are ordering in the city versus out in the burbs, or how …

Dirk: Who would that be interesting to and why?

Jon: I think it would be interesting from a policy perspective, because there’s the whole question about how people have access to good food stubs, and whether or not …

Dirk: By good do you mean healthy? How are you using the word good there?

Jon: I mean healthy right? Just to tie it to some of the work that we do here at the studio, understanding the whole individual and other elements that we may not necessarily associate with health. I do think we’re sort of on the cusp of being able to do some really interesting things with that data whether it’s an aggregate or on an individual basis, and that’s what peaks my interest about this Uber movement analytics website.

Dirk: Yeah.

Jon: Listeners, remember that while you’re listening to the show, you can follow along with the things that we’re mentioning here in real time. Just head over to thedigitalife.com. That’s just one “L” in thedigitalife, and go to the page for this episode. We’ve included links to pretty much everything mentioned by everybody. So, it’s a rich information resource to take advantage of while listening, or afterward if you’re trying to remember something that you liked. You can find The Digital Life on iTunes, SoundCloud, Stitcher, PlayerFM, and Google Play. If you want to follow us outside of the show, you can follow me on Twitter @jonfollett that’s j-o-n f-o-l-l-e-t-t. Of course the whole show is brought to you by Involution Studios, which you can check out at goinvo.com. That’s g-o-i-n-v-o dot com. Dirk?

Dirk: You can follow me on Twitter @dknemeyer that’s @d-k-n-e-m-e-y-e-r. Thank you so much for listening.
Jon: That’s it for episode 189 of The Digital Life. For Dirk Knemeyer, I’m Jon Follett, and we’ll see you next time.

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