Why Tracking Your Activity Can Be A Good Thing

So people have been arguing about the information about tracking your phone calls that Snowden leaked. It does make sense. You don’t need some government creep listening in when you call your grandmother to wish her a happy birthday or flirt with your girlfriend over the phone, and you especially don’t need them listening while you discuss some financial matter with your bank. You would think that they have more important things to think about like, say, securing our borders. However, I could think of some cases where tracking your habits can be a good thing for you.

It’s raw data that will only make sense if somebody takes the trouble to organize it. That’s all it is. A lot of that data falls by the wayside because nobody really looks at it. However, let’s say that you get a latte at Starbucks every morning and the employees did something to gross you out yesterday. That gets you thinking about maybe finding an alternative, maybe a little local coffee shop that isn’t too far out of your way. So you can imagine an app that can suggest places near you that are sort of like Starbucks just based on your buying habits.

That’s called targeting advertising. We all know that you’re going to get advertised to anyway, and demographics just don’t cut it anymore. You can be sure that large companies would rather not waste their money advertising to people who are never going to buy their products, no matter what the numbers say. So they want to find a way to advertise to you as an individual, who might have gotten sick of paying Starbucks’ prices and want to start making your own lattes at home.

Your online shopping habits are already being tracked. Amazon uses your activity on its website to suggest items similar to ones you’ve viewed or purchased. They can say, “We see you looked at this cappuccino machine, you might like to check out these similar machines.” Or they might say, “We see you bought a book about programming in Java, you might also check out these similar books on programming.” It’s pretty neat, but what if I bought the book for a college class and don’t really need any more in the near future? Amazon might do better to suggest items that every programmer needs, like maybe accessories a programmer can use when he becomes a complete night owl so he can get that program finished without being bothered. (A USB night light would be useful for starters. We like being able to see, too, but we might not want to advertise that somebody is working nights in that particular office.)

Google does the same thing with its search results and advertising. Recently, I booked a hotel in Washington, D.C. Now I’m seeing Google ads for travel sites that feature similar hotels not very far from the one I booked. Why is that? It could be because I used Google to help me in my search for the hotel. They keep track of that, even if it is a little pointless to show me that particular advertising after I already planned my trip. Considering that I’ll probably end up eating at nearby restaurants, I’d like to know which ones offer a good atmosphere for a gathering with friends. So it might make sense to show me ads that involve local attractions and restaurants.

Then it becomes not recommendations, but discovery. Retailers can reorganize their tracking data to say, “Oh, you bought this book on creating Android apps, you must be a programmer with an Android tablet, this app is nice for cases when you want to edit your programs on the go.” Too expensive? Not when you consider the idea that retailers might be losing sales because nobody knows about this useful product and, if you already bought a cappuccino machine, you’re probably not going to buy another one for a while.

The fact is, you’re going to get advertised to and you would rather not be annoyed by pointless commercials for products you’re never going to use. (Are you listening, Youtube? Showing me a preview for that horror flick when all I want is to watch this video for using Bezier curves in Blender is NOT COOL.) So, as retailers become better about using the data they collect on you, everybody wins when you can find that one thing you’ve always wanted but haven’t been able to find.

Learn More About Big Data

Tracking your data will depend on Big Data and the people who work with the terabytes of data that are produced daily. If you are interested in checking out this field, here’s some books to check out.


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