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The Everchanging Atlas of You

"A map says to you. Read me carefully, follow me closely, doubt me not ... I am the earth in the palm of your hand." - Beryl Markham.

In the Age of Exploration, also known as the Age of Discovery, everyone on the planet started down the path towards globalization, whether they realized it or not. From the 15th to the 18th century, humanity expressed a collective and undeniable interest to expand its understanding of what lay beyond the boundaries of their religion and their complacency.

The first explorers of this period set out in every direction without any credible knowledge, apart from dubious folklore, about what they would encounter. There was nothing that accurately measured the distances between them, describing the immensity of mountains they would encounter just over the horizons or the vastness of the oceans of sand and water that the layout before them. They lacked accurate maps and the data to plot them.

The earliest navigators kept track and plotted their ways with the most basic techniques, visual markers, while traveling both on land and at sea. They lined up two landmarks in a direction towards the unknown and set off. When no landmarks were in sight, they innovated and started looking to the heavens and based their locations and direction of travel with the location of the Sun and a few stars in the night sky. The Sun and stars led to birds and waves, which led to currents and winds, sextants and compasses, and all combined with the notion of time. Each of these new techniques helped collect data and improve the accuracy of the maps subsequently charted, and they eagerly shared these new maps. Before rampant colonization began, the emerging picture of the known and unknown world helped provide boundaries, highlight hazards, and provide a sense of understanding useful in many different ways.

In our society today, everyone on the planet is involved in being individually discovered, charted, and understood like the unknown territories of the past. The activities of our lives are being captured and plotted into a multifaceted series of grids, comprising an atlas of our very own being. The techniques of capturing data about our behaviors have changed dramatically over the past 50 years, and the insights derived from these efforts far exceeded even the most optimistic expectations. We have created, as a society, highly accurate maps of ourselves called “identity maps.”

It all began over 50 years ago when we unwittingly filled out questionnaires for mail-in product warranties and magazine subscriptions. The common characteristics used to map our behaviors were your gender and age because they were highly accessible and highly reliable in an analog world. Television advertisers used the Nielsen company to collect data using these two characteristics and influence how advertisers reached audiences based on programming preferences. It was wildly successful and still provides the basis for most behavioral clustering.

The individualistic data mapping exercises continued through the consumer financial services and insurance industries of the 1990s and 2000s. New and valuable behavioral characteristics were attached to existing characteristics to provide incremental insights to target products and deliver messages more effectively. When Al Gore invented the internet, data collection moved to a new level of accuracy, availability, and integrity. When it became evident that every action on the internet left bread crumbs and created a trail, we realized that we track those activities back to a group of individuals or even a specific individual.

Today, the data points enhancing our identity maps include real-time and highly accurate data harvested from everyday items in our daily lives that would surprise you. Your mobile devices and smart TV sets, wireless earbuds, doorbells, thermostats, and even refrigerators send massive amounts of data about you that is subsequently analyzed and mainly shared without your knowledge.

These data points are all stitched together by really clever people to create a comprehensive and valuable view of behaviors using some ingenious technology. The resulting maps are highly accurate and dynamic. New data can be updated as it happens, such as a specific search term used in your browser, a change in your credit score, or exposure to an ad on television. Updated profiles happen instantaneously.

This is the point where people want to scream, “this can’t be legal.” But it is, mainly because the laws in place did not contemplate this level of activity when they were drafted. Others’ may rant, “but I never gave them permission.” But you did because you didn’t read the T&C’s to opt-out in the click-wrap disclosures. Still, others will suggest, “it’s an invasion of privacy.” But it’s not because it is largely public domain data.

In my opinion, these advancements have improved the basic understanding that people are different. We behave differently, we have different interests, and we have different opinions. No level of groupthink or media-dominant messages can change the inherent diversity that we have in us from birth, and it screams out very loudly and very clearly in our behavioral data. This data collection has a tremendous opportunity to help us understand each other and interact with each other on a level basis of understood diversity, rather than bleaching forced messages to the masses. The problems are also clearly apparent in that humanity has a history of misinforming and manipulating this type of robust information when held in private and clandestine groups with less than altruistic intentions.

I often wonder what is possible in all things in our world and what is possible when the veils are pulled away.

Why are so many data collection processes for these maps hidden from us to put a fine point? Some of the techniques and types of data collected are pretty complex and controversial. For instance, your cell phone most likely has a free weather app on it that provides you weather based on your location. To do this, it needs to know where you are, in GPS coordinates data, every minute of the day. These apps sell these coordinates and the device number of your phone to support the free weather service you get. Some free games that you download on your mobile devices have access to your microphone through an opt-in that you didn’t read. They listen for keywords or hidden audio watermarks to determine your marketability. Your browsers’ search history is linked across your desktops, tablets, and mobile devices while at work and home, and the matching algorithms can tell the differences based on the attached IP addresses in the data packets. Your smart TV sends a packet of data that describes what channel you are tuned into and which commercials you were actually exposed to in real-time data. All of these data points find their way back to your identity map through something called a device graph.

It’s a complex issue with arguably both positive impact and negative consequences.

In reality, the primary goal of these data collection activities is to provide meaningful insights to organizations that want to perform two high-level tasks:

To describe - They want to put you into a category that describes you in terms they can understand. If a category is too general, it lacks efficiency, and if it is too specific, it lacks marketability. This is done by clustering your activities and locations and every other piece of data available.

To predict - Once you are in a category that fits their use, they want to predict how you will react to products and messages to which you are exposed.

From political parties to keg parties, marketers and agencies want to access your identity map to see if it plots their navigation goals. They want to know if you are worth the stop along the way, and if you are, based on your classifiers, they will want to test the best approach to get you on board. They also want to avoid problematic whirlpools that trap them or cause issues with you based on products or messages that may be offensive.

I know that I am not alone when I say that I personally like this type of analysis for market segmentation because I notice that I am not being marketed with as many irrelevant products and services. My identity map is pretty detailed and accurate because I choose to opt-in to many forms of online data collection. I consider this akin to recycling my trash to eliminate waste in the environment. The advertising and noise pollution from wasted targeting efforts have always bothered me as a marketer and a consumer. US retail magnate John Wanamaker once said, “Half my advertising spend is wasted; the trouble is, I don’t know which half.” As with many others, his problem was they lacked data to provide an identity map to be more targeted and efficient and curb waste.

In the world of decision sciences, there are two broad types of insights that are provided from the data harvested from your activities, and of course, we use big fancy words to describe them:

Deterministic – This is data that actually describes something that you did and is highly valuable. Your data actually shows that you were in a car dealership yesterday for 45 minutes or that you actually watched FOX News for three hours last week. It is a certified event that happened to you. While highly coveted, this type of data does not always exist in scale and quality.

Probabilistic – This data usually comes in the form of a number or a score and describes the likelihood, or probability, of you doing something within a timeframe. Your data will indicate that you might be in the market for a car, or you might be a viewer of conservative cable news. Many of the advanced AI techniques and machine learnings use massive amounts of computing power to analyze endless amounts of data to describe relationships in the data that suggest a specific event happening in the future. The resulting probabilities are not always great, but acquiring these insights is incredible and shows no limits.

The big winners in this data-driven ecosystem are not surprisingly the early explorers; Google, Facebook, and Amazon. They control vast amounts of data behind walled gardens, and they are the new colonizers. They have smartly invested in the data and the data scientists to make the most sense and capitalize on it. Not surprisingly, they also have the most to lose with the shifting regulatory landscape and privacy initiatives like those just initiated by Apple.

In the days, weeks, months, and years ahead, as this permeable landscape of data mapping and capture processes undoubtedly changes, be confident that a version of it will continue to exist. As it continues to exist, it will continue to offend and continue to astonish.

In my opinion, I think our society would benefit greatly by expanding the utility of these identity maps into noncommercial endeavors. The great minds that commercially connect these tissues have at their disposal the resources and know-how to present data about ourselves that would increase the understanding of our neighbors, identify differences, and help work towards a world of improved tolerance.

I would love to see other people, and for them to see me, in the many ways that we are incapable of communicating. Our daily activities describe what we care about, what is important to us. They define our desires and our fears better than we could ever put down in words. Our strengths and our weaknesses could be better understood so that others could anticipate and avoid conflict. Alas, if only we could trust humanity.

However, I would suggest that you better understand what you are contributing to your identity map. What are you putting out there daily, and would you be comfortable being openly described by it? Regardless of that answer, it would be best if you were comfortable owning that map and understanding your borders and boundaries plotted; it is another portrait of you. Also, take the time to consider others, and how their identity map may have similarities and differences from yours, and the challenges of mapping journeys safely between.

Today, our society is confused because external agendas overly influence us in the political world and media messages. If we do not understand where our boundaries and borders are, we most certainly risk being misled by the misguided promises of the new age explorers.

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