Who Owns Our Quantified Lives?

As humans we seem to have an insatiable drive to understand everything we can about ourselves and our surroundings. This lead us to our current understanding of our universe, nature’s forces and science. It has given us medicine and machines, computers and sometimes led to wars. To learn more is our default state. It’s what we do. In its simplest form our urge to learn relates to our survival. Learning equals survival and is literally the difference between one set of genes surviving to reproduce while others end up in the bit bucket.

We are hardwired to learn. So when an opportunity arrives that promises to give us an insight into something that appears useful to us, then we tend to grab it with both hands. The flip side to this though is that the same instinct can also make us keen to give our money to anyone that says that they can give us an edge.

Both the Apple Watch and the Microsoft Band now vie for our attention and our money. In addition almost other every sports, technology or consumer facing brand is now trying to sell us wearable devices. We can learn about our sleep and our heart rate, our steps taken and the calories we consume just for starters. We can now measure so much as well as compare ourselves to each other, and much of this data is now to be shared in either anonymised or scarily so, not so anonymised form. Millions of us are about to lead quantified lives.

You might think that in my work for a data analytics consultancy I would think this is a good idea? Well yes, and no. I think it’s good if it can give you some real near or long term benefits proportion to the cost of and the ‘faff factor’ of the device and its software.

So, if you have a heart condition and being aware of your heart rate and vital signs might be a very good idea for you then go for it, or if you can use your work out and BMI information to be more motivated to your goals then great, but if you are like me and believe you are relatively healthy and happy as you are I don’t think you might need to know so much? Do we all really need sleep analysis? Do you? Why? I think it’s important to think about these questions because sharing our data will permanently change society and our lives.

Others can now profit from you and what’s left of our personal privacy can and will be monitised.

For example, the New York Times reports about an insurance company that is offering discounts to customers if they will wear a device and have their lives monitored. They will be able to tell how fit their customers are, how much they walk and run and even how often you might have sex. Of course they might allow their customers to take them off at those times?

Not sleeping optimally might raise your life insurance premium as well as ensure that sleep improvement adverts are on every screen you see, every waking moment. Also imagine the tongue in cheek gamification? Who might like to know that they are the fittest person in London, or perhaps the person having the most fun with their clothes off? Sounds amusing? Maybe? But then what if someone correlates that with GPS and social media data and identifies who you are? Or perhaps decides that people who are having more fun not only might be good to market to, but also who might be more at risk of catching something they didn’t bank on, or even that an employer might decide they don’t agree with someone’s alleged private lifestyle.

Far fetched?

Data harvesting and data analytics holds great promise for us all, but as usual things can be used in ways we didn’t anticipate and because of this we all need to be part of the debate rather than passively sitting by.

Apart from being a commercial issue it’s also moral and social one. In these times of human to human marketing (H2H) we need to consider the issues carefully. Every company or organisation that collects or analyses data is going to need a publicly stated data policy to establish customer trust and reflect the views we have toward each other. We hope the winners will be those that respect and care about their customers’ privacy and I’m looking forward to finding out where the lines will be drawn before the inevitable skirmishes break out.

So this post is really about data ethics and that in trying to grow our businesses or the ones we work for we need to start considering them. As an analytics company, we should take part in the debate and we also want to be open to scrutiny.

At Consolidata we are getting involved, we are investigating these subjects and looking for discussions.