Countless points of personal data offer benefits, challenges for media companies

A well-known Canadian fashion reporter recently explained the difference between fashion and style: “Fashion is what you're offered. Style is what you choose.” Style, in other words, is unique to each one of us.

In our modern world, what we wear, what we share, and what we care about are now mere data points on the huge spectrum of infinite relationships, links, and permutations that represent a distinctive and discrete human being.

As publishers, we both collect and analyse a vast amount of data and monetise it in some form or other; we may improve our product offering or our customer service, make use of flexible pricing, or make our Web site behave differently.

Most Web sites’ basic data collection consists of a computer’s IP address and links it with time spent, articles read, games played, videos watched, and a few other hundred – if not thousands – of additional data points.

If a person comes to a site as a guest, the information collected is mostly inferred and often remains anonymised.

Specific and general characteristics are combined together with oodles of current and historical data from countless readers and are decoded and re-coded into anonymised records.

In turn, owners of those Big Data sets use this information to better understand readers’ needs and wants and, ultimately, offer products and services tailored to individuals or collectives.

Personal and collective identities

Psychologists view personal identity as what makes a person unique. Sociologists, on the other hand, look at social identity within the context of group membership.

Marketers will use the framework of “personas” to define groups of people showing similar characteristics and/or behaviours. When individuals are connected together via specific attributes and characteristics, we can identify a collective identity or tribe.

News media organisations often assemble behavioural, cultural, and a variety of interest-based information collected via metrics, like articles clicked on, shared, re-tweeted, thumbed up or down, and so on.

All these actions, done via a computer, phone, or tablet, record every move, the exact time of day of the action, and the geographical locations of where these actions took place. At this point, most publishers have a decent idea of the multiple collective identities or personas that visit their sites or use their products.

Combine the data that is harvested by Web browsing and various online activities with the vast amount of personal data available when someone logs in using social media sites, and the number of data points literally explodes.

All this data can be analysed and cross-referenced, and from this point on, personal identities (and perhaps unknown collective identities) start taking form.

Scores of news media companies have taken advantage of the knowledge derived from this deep data analysis. Their stories are told in the latest INMA report “Making Big Data Smarter for Media Companies.”

Today, however, what comprises our personal identity is so much more than what we disclose on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn.

True, there is enormously more data available to marketers and publishers from social media sites. But looking ahead, our personal identity will be comprised of a lot more information which, in itself, will provide challenges and opportunities.

The issue of disclosure and how news media organisations are protecting the privacy of their readers and safeguarding their respective brand trusts must be considered in parallel with the Big Data strategy.

In this post we will start with one of the multiple challenges a modern personal identity poses.

Personal data disclosure: An individual responsibility?

In December 2009, Google’s CEO Eric Schmidt famously responded to a CNBC interviewer about his company’s position on privacy: If you have something that you dont want anyone to know, maybe you shouldnt be doing it in the first place.

Immoral individuals, beware.

In his 2012 edition of Macrowikinomics, Don Tapscott and Anthony D. Williams highlight the emerging identity fraud and theft brought about by the abundance of data available to an increasingly networked world.

The authors argue that “personal information, be it biographical, biological, genealogical, historical, transactional, locational, relational, computational, vocational, or reputational” should be managed responsibly, putting the onus of this privacy management on the individual.

Maybe. But not all the personal information is held, managed, or controlled by the individual. A lot of personal records are simply not within reach.

We all have health-care records that may contain physical, psychological, gender, or genetic material. Our financial institutions hold data about our assets, liabilities, income, and credit worthiness.

Other information is held with our respective municipalities, and the related utility companies hold information about residence, land ownership, and our water/electricity/gas consumption.

Cable, telephone, and Internet companies know about our Internet use, long-distance phone calls, and channels viewed. Educational institutions hold records on our grades from each of our courses from high school through university.

Insurance companies can now obtain detailed information on our driving behaviour via data recorders in our cars. Our legal systems house data on investigations, proceedings, or lawsuits.

And, of course, our governments hold individual information like income, social security number, and statistical survey information like language spoken at home, number of individuals in the household, and so on.

It is simply daunting the personal and mostly private information held outside an individual’s control.

Social media sites offer some control of information, of course. But many people fail to understand the data that can leak from them well beyond what is included in a typical profile.

For example, an individual’s opinions about race, religion, ethnicity, or culture can easily surface from social sites like Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram. LinkedIn offers detailed occupational, influencer, and acquired skill information, although all of this information in squarely within an individual’s control.

Our modern identity is composed of millions of recorded data points. This, in turn, offers news organisations infinite possibilities for personalisation of products and services as well as presenting new challenges in safeguarding and properly handling the information on file.

In our next post, we will look at how corporate transparency, and the use of the personal and aggregated data on hand, plays a pivotal role in preserving brand trust.

About Andrée Gosselin O’Meara

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