Computing Community Consortium Blog

The goal of the Computing Community Consortium (CCC) is to catalyze the computing research community to debate longer range, more audacious research challenges; to build consensus around research visions; to evolve the most promising visions toward clearly defined initiatives; and to work with the funding organizations to move challenges and visions toward funding initiatives. The purpose of this blog is to provide a more immediate, online mechanism for dissemination of visioning concepts and community discussion/debate about them.

If Digital, Then Tracking: Big Data Analytics in Practice — And What it Means

June 29th, 2012 / in big science, policy, research horizons, Research News / by Erwin Gianchandani

The NOOK Tablet(TM) by Barnes & Noble [image courtesy PCWorld].Yesterday we blogged in this space about a ‘big data’ briefing held in downtown Washington, DC, earlier this week, one that emphasized the exponential growth in data that we are witnessing with each passing day. IBM Research’s David McQueeney noted how corporations recognize there are huge opportunities if they can “master the tsunami of data.”

Well, what about something as simple as one’s e-reader? We can assume these days that if a device is digital, then it is tracking and storing information about its user. So how can an e-reader help businesses grow — and what are the consequences for consumers?

The Wall Street Journal has published an interesting article — “Your E-Book is Reading You” — detailing how smart analytics are helping the Barnes & Nobles of the world learn more about their customers. From the article (following the link):

Barnes & Noble, which accounts for 25% to 30% of the e-book market through its Nook e-reader, has recently started studying customers’ digital reading behavior. Data collected from Nooks reveals, for example, how far readers get in particular books, how quickly they read and how readers of particular genres engage with books. Jim Hilt, the company’s vice president of e-books, says the company is starting to share their insights with publishers to help them create books that better hold people’s attention.

The article goes into further detail about how descriptive these data are:

Barnes & Noble has determined, through analyzing Nook data, that nonfiction books tend to be read in fits and starts, while novels are generally read straight through, and that nonfiction books, particularly long ones, tend to get dropped earlier. Science-fiction, romance and crime-fiction fans often read more books more quickly than readers of literary fiction do, and finish most of the books they start. Readers of literary fiction quit books more often and tend skip around between books.

And the WSJ story is just one in a series of articles published in recent weeks describing industry’s efforts to capitalize on big data — from identifying potential fraud at eBay to improving automobile design and marketing at Ford to enhancing product recommendations for consumers at the traditional brick and mortar retailer Sears.

And then there’s of course the set of opportunities enabled by the rise of social media. Take this Technology Review story about how Facebook’s “social scientists are hunting for insights about human behavior.” Or the recent work of University of Illinois researcher Kalev Leetaru, whose time-lapse movie below is meant to display how Wikipedia writers of today view the world:

But as the WSJ story about e-readers notes, the endless possibilities when analyzing a treasure trove of data also come with inherent challenges. Corporations are sure to find serendipitous results that can help their business grow and compete in the market. But what about the consumer privacy issues that this entails?

Bruce Schneier, a cyber-security expert and author, worries that readers may steer clear of digital books on sensitive subjects such as health, sexuality and security — including his own works — out of fear that their reading is being tracked. “There are a gazillion things that we read that we want to read in private,” Mr. Schneier says.

Share your thoughts below — particularly about the compelling research frontiers this question opens up.

(Contributed by Kenneth Hines, CCC Program Associate)

If Digital, Then Tracking: Big Data Analytics in Practice — And What it Means