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Mosaic and The Power of Data

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I’ve been thinking quite a lot lately about data analysis, partly because I’ve got to do some work on an interesting dataset and partly because I’ve belatedly come to see many of the benefits of data mining and manipulation.  Audioscrobbler’s USP, based as it is on personal data in the form of  music played, to produce individual and group profiles which in turn drives playlists aka personal radio, is an excellent example of datamining providing the USP.  In many ways del.icio.us is the same – their site is their API and that is driven by user data.  In both cases the data is used transparently.  You agree to its use because you see the  personal benefits.  You trust them.

But there are morally questionable uses of personal data.  Like credit card data.  Experian the reference agency which pulls together people credit histories and meshes it with all kinds of other data has a product called Mosaic.  This basically knows, or purports to know who you are and what you want based on age, wealth, ethnicity, housing type, and of course things like your credit record.  It’s like Acorn on steroids. Retailers love it to plan product ranges in store and even to plan the location of stores themselves.  Now political parties are using it to know their audience better and to potentially determine their communications strategy to appeal most to voters and not just  swing voters in marginal seats but all of us.  This is especially significant given that according to research:

Labour’s 167-seat
majority in 2001 could have been removed if just 136,108 voters in 83
of the most marginal Labour seats had cast their ballots for
second-placed candidates.

This ability to see what voters want is, I think, a huge threat to political ideolgies such as they are.  The focus groups of Philip Gould under Blair were legendary for their effect on policy and surveys are constantly being done by political parties to keep up with their electorate.  But things like Mosaic, which will only become more powerful in their ability to predict even in real time in response to events and political campaigns, could mean that we have a government shorn of any belief let alone ideology and is constantly reactive to public opinion.   

see also:
The myriad of bad news stories around credit fraud which only serve to strengthen the case for Experian and others to collect more and more data on us without our explicit consent in the mispaced belief it makes a difference.