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By Eric Plunkett

The age of big data has arrived.

Never was this more apparent than last Tuesday, when President Obama won re-election. Soon thereafter, political commentators began discussing how Obama’s success, particularly in critical swing states such as Ohio, was a result of his campaign’s embrace of unorthodox, data-driven methods. The Obama camp consulted with behavior economists, psychologists, and, most importantly, statisticians to create a data-mining super team that used micro-targeting to squeeze every vote and dollar out of its vast database of supporters and likely voters. More than one observer credited the president’s victory as a victory for big data—and a sign of things to come.

Data analysis on a massive scale has been made possible by ever-stronger computer processing capabilities. It’s been accelerated by the development of the internet and the rise of a parallel digital society. Every time we sign up for a mailing list, buy something from Amazon.com, or search on Google, we leave a digital footprint—one that is increasingly being exploited by marketers to reach us in new ways.

But the growth in technological capacity is only one part of the story. It’s also coincided with a cultural shift in the acceptance of big data as a part of our lives. While we might grumble or even worry that companies have greater access to us than ever before, so far, at least, the benefits of connectivity have more than outweighed the costs of being targeted.

Which brings me to Opower, the utility customer engagement experts. Last Thursday, I had the chance to host the CBEY Blueprint for Efficiency webinar series’ first webinar of the year, entitled “Unlocking the ‘power’ of big data: Analyzing energy consumption across 50+ million US households. We were joined by Opower Head Writer/Editor, Barry Fischer, author of Opower’s new blog, Outlier.

Barry talked about Opower’s unprecedented database of over 50 million US households and discussed a few of the more interesting trends they’ve uncovered—such as Gmail users being more energy-efficient than Yahoo! users and the vast differences in peak-load demand for energy on 80-degree days vs. 100-degree days. Barry also revealed that likelihood of voting is correlated with more energy-efficient practices and offered some possibilities why.

It was a fascinating talk with lots of great listener feedback about the patterns data can uncover and the role it plays in our lives. And it got me wondering about how big data will play out in our homes and lives in the future. How do we balance the benefits of big data, like the work Opower’s doing, with the desire to maintain privacy? Almost by nature, technology outpaces our understanding of it. As a society, are we willing to accept that the companies—and politicians—that “win the future,” to use one of the president’s favorite sayings, are the ones that can dig ever deeper into our digital selves to uncover who we are and what we want? Or will the cultural pendulum swing back somewhat in response to the constant digital onslaught, as we’ve seen with the pushback against smart meters?

I tend to side with the Opowers and Nate Silvers of the world who see big data as a net beneficial force in society. As with other technologies, it’s neither inherently good nor bad, but rather a powerful tool that we must choose to use wisely. It can flood my inbox with targeted ads, but it can also give emergency responders better real-time information in a crisis. It can help decide an election, but it can also help a politician better understand the needs of his or her constituents. The technology for accessing and analyzing our lives is only going to get better. Whether it’s the next Big Thing or Big Brother is up to us.

But in the end, I guess all that really matters is what the people in Ohio think.
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