Data is a hot topic with huge ambitions. From what we hear from tech evangelists, "Big Data" might just disrupt and transform everything from how we understand our cities and education, to healthcare and finance. There's no stopping data now. A search in this year's SXSW schedule generated 150 results of interesting talks and panels where data was a key theme. Among them: Maps of Time: Data As Narrative, Data Is the New Oil: Wealth and Wars on the Web, Big Data: Privacy Threat or Business Model?, Future of Cities: Technology in Public Service, Dealing with the Media Data Explosion, and Data Vis Is Dead, Long Live Data Vis!. I didn't have time to go to them all but one talk stayed with me because it narrowed my imagination (a good thing!) and made me think about data from a specific perspective: the consumer's.
I would say 83.7% of all "data" articles and blogposts I come across are about big data, linked data/semantic web, data mining or privacy. The other 16.3% are about infographics and data visualizations. So when I listened to Richard Ayers's talk, Datatainment: Soccer Sexes-Up Spreadsheets (great topic, worst title), about how the British football club Manchester City plans to release a suite of data products based on multiple data feeds from the football players and season statistics, I was positively surprised and inspired. I scribbled down a note about the 'evolution of data':
Data as intelligence --> Data as information ---> Data as entertainment
I realize this is a very crude generalization (and a pretty pretentious one). But my point is that new layers of opportunity for how data can be used are being added as more and larger data sets are becoming available. Most of [strike data products around today have a B2B focus. Data in its raw form is the basic business currency of the web, a raw material for data mining, business intelligence, targeted advertising; the only consumer experience at this stage relates to privacy concerns. Data as information has a consumer-facing side but it's often static or with pre-defined interactions, e.g. in products such as data visualizations and infographics. The main purpose is to inform, rather than engage. A third category, and a natural next step, would be to take data as the starting point when developing digital entertainment.
I think this is interesting because many media products serve one of two purposes (or both): to inform or to entertain. Yet, it seems only the information leg has been transformed by the data trend so far. There are a number of interesting examples of media companies who work with data-driven intelligence (e.g. Financial Times, Amazon, Netflix), as are there examples of organizations that experiment with data as information (e.g. Guardian, New York Times, Visual.ly), but there are still very few examples of data being used as the foundation for entertainment products. There's no lack of consumer demand for entertainment (big media businesses such as TV, magazines, and cinema are built around it) but there is a lack of new digital entertainment experiences.
We're starting to see experimentation happening in sports and second-screen TV apps. New kinds of live experiences are being built with social and live data feeds as their DNA, making them much more engaging and interactive as entertainment. For example:
Heineken Star Player – a virtual game built on top of live data feeds from real Champions League soccer matches that allows players to react to events on the pitch in real-time and predict what will happen at key moments such as corners, free kicks and penalties to score points. (link)
Fantasy Election 12 – taking inspiration from fantasy sports, MTV is packaging politics and the US presidential election as live entertainment. The election game is built on data feeds from partners Politifact (“Truth-O-Meter” scores), RealClearPolitics (polling numbers), GetGlue (check-ins to TV debates) and Foursquare (check-ins to town hall events) which serve as the base for determining whether the players' candidates will be rewarded points for "exhibiting behaviors voters deserve" or penalized and deducted points for "behaviors that hurt democracy.” (link)
Sofanatics – builds virtual stadiums based on social data sets that let sports fans interact with each other and virtually show support for their teams. The service visualizes all social data that fans create during a match in real-time. There's a toolbox of virtual cheering actions such as waving, jumping, crying, broadcasting Jumbotron messages but also virtual goods and premium actions like dropping confetti, lighting fireworks and raining on the opposing team’s side of the stadium. (link)
I believe Datatainment is emerging as a new digital product category and great business opportunity for media companies. We just need to get over the idea that data is merely a tech trend.
Within the past several years, a number of new subscription services have emerged catering to consumers who are both hungry for uniquely packaged digital media services and willing to pay for them. The business model traditionally applied to newspapers, magazines, cable bills and gyms, has become appropriated by digital music players like Spotify and Pandora, video-on-demand (VOD) services such as Netflix, Lovefilm and Hulu, and – lately – by pure e-commerce players. Indeed, in our internet-enabled world, many products not traditionally sold via subscription are increasingly moving in this direction.
Our current flirtation – if not full-blown romance – with the subscription model is best understood when considering the mutual benefits the model offers customers and companies. Customers gain continued access to services and the experience of frictionless transactions. Companies maintain cash flow stability and return customers without the costs of convincing said customer to repeatedly purchase. These benefits are amplified when placed in the context of the digital realm – empowered by the cloud, digital word-of-mouth and endlessly intelligent algorithms. All-you-can eat media, or say – shoes, has become a true customer offering, this time personalized and customized to our liking. Additionally, the subscription model has given companies a loophole to avoid the 30% revenue share required within Apple’s strict ecosystem (an evermore important benefit as much media and e-commerce consumption occurs on tablets).
Beyond the Netflix and Spotify examples (which have used their subscription services to challenge iTunes digital media domination), the latest incarnation of subscription-mania is a swarm of e-commerce companies selling curated and personalized packages across verticals: makeup, groceries, shoes, clothing, household items, jewelry, etc. Services such as ShoeDazzle, BeachMint, and Birchbox are winning the hearts of consumers and investors alike as they merge the discovery function of the magazine with the fulfillment function of a commerce platform. In the cases of BeachMint and ShoeDazzle, famous experts curate the packages for consumers, allowing the businesses to leverage the power of celebrity.
And while celebrity-curated subscriptions are just the newest wave of star-driven marketing, the model is a threat to not just existing e-commerce services that lack personalization (not to mention star-power), but content providers as well. Indeed, these services fulfill a secondary function formerly fulfilled by magazines. Now, instead of flipping through US Weekly for inspiration on the latest tastes and stylings of Kate Bosworth, she can pick out a necklace specific to your tastes every month. The confluence of content, commerce and curation within these new services is an indication of how e-commerce and magazines are converging toward the convenience of the user. We first subscribed to pure media content, then e-commerce goods. And now, we can subscribe to personalized and curated taste, taste that we otherwise generated through insatiable magazine consumption.
As cord-cutters (avoiders, nevers) continue to realize the benefits of a $7.99 Netflix account over a $100 cable bill, perhaps we will see the extra $92.01 divided up amongst the slew of other subscription services. In addition to all-you-can-eat VOD, nixing your cable bill can buy you a Spotify premium account ($10), monthly shoe delivery curated by Kim Kardashian of ShoeDazzle ($39.95), personalized make-up samples delivered to your home by Birchbox ($10), and an item of jewelry/month designed and selected for you by Kate Bosworth of JewelMint ($29.99). Considering the decreasing significance of actual TV channels in favor of specific VOD content, this seems like a pretty good deal.
And this personalized subscription phase has just begun. As our spending behaviors continue to evolve, we can predict that where we once subscribed to five niche magazines, we may soon subscribe to actual activities, taste-specific and expert-endorsed goods, and content-enriched media all nuanced to our daily lives. So, have you cancelled your cable yet?
Ogilvy Notes on Al Gore & Sean Parker's SXSW 2012 session
Team R&D is back and pretty much recovered from South by Southwest (SXSW) Interactive, the annual digital megafestival in Austin, Texas, which became the largest in history in 2012 with over 55,000 attendees. We wish we could bring you all some Texas barbeque, but in lieu of that, here are our top insights from the conference.#OccupyDemocracy: The social media change movement
Two of the most inspiring sessions at SXSW were the keynotes from Baratunde Thurston (see slides here), comedian and digital director at The Onion; and the conversation between former U.S. Vice President Al Gore and Napster founder/former Facebook CEO Sean Parker (video here). Thurston’s talk was about how comedy, spread virally via the Internet, is accelerating social and political change all over the world. He talked about the role of comedians, “sacred clowns” as he called them, who cut through the media noise and help deliver important truths in a light-hearted way that’s easier for potential opponents to hear:
"The internet of crap is emerging for all of us. It's a magical time. This casts a lot of noise. It creates some tension in opportunity for clarity and trust because with all this noise and confusion, we look to institutions for trust. They often come up short. Government is trying to shut it down. Religion missing in action. Your parents are awkwardly texting you. And the media is busy talking about the state of the media. So, who's left? You've got comics, willing to speak truth to the youth and beyond."
Gore and Parker also talked about the role of the Internet in lifting up new voices. Specifically, they talked about the need to use social media to fix the ailing U.S. democratic system by shifting the power of influence from the most well-funded candidates to the ones with the most popular support. In a time when Kickstarter is being used to transform funding in the entertainment industry, it’s easy to envision the potential impact an innovative collaborative funding platform could have on the political system as well. Gore finished the discussion by urging the new Internet-enabled generation of voters to “occupy democracy” utilizing a combination of social media and in-person participation. Parker echoed the call to action, saying we need to take advantage of social media to make real changes during the “window where politicians don’t really understand it.”
This year, sponsors had a more prominent presence than startups. In previous years, Twitter, Foursquare, GroupMe, and Foodspotting launched at SXSW to a large audience of early adopters. But this year, social discovery apps like Highlight, Glancee, and Kissmet all fell rather flat. While they were okay at identifying nearby conference attendees with similar interests (well, Facebook-level interests, anyway, like a shared fondness for Mad Men and Radiohead), they didn't offer any motivation to track these people down and start up a conversation. Instead of an incumbent stealing the spotlight this year, the winners of SXSWs past solidified their dominance.
Surprisingly, one the most useful features of the conference came from one of its biggest sponsors, American carmaker Chevrolet. Out of the 20,000 attendees, Chevy claims 7,000 stopped by their Volt Lounge to recharge their overused smartphones, tablets, and laptops. Attendees could also flag down one of their 2012 Cruzes to get a free ride to anywhere in the downtown area. It’s becoming apparent that SXSW is better at delivering a hungry audience to advertisers (literally—brands offered free barbeque, tacos and other treats throughout the festival) than delivering hungry startups to an audience.
One of the more interesting topics at SXSW this year was how technology is being used to revitalize cities. Code for America’s Jennifer Pahlka used her keynote to galvanize the audience in support of her “Geek Army.” She identified working in government as a fate more dreaded than pulling teeth. But Code for America’s accelerator program will encourage startups to focus on solving public sector problems and will create a coder's brigade to encourage individuals to start tech-related projects in their own communities.
Meanwhile, the “Future of Cities” panel was all about how cities are turning citizens into sensors by collecting data about everyday behavior patterns to improve public health, safety, and the environment. The panel was moderated by Alexander Howard, Government 2.0 Correspondent for O’Reilly Media, and featured Chris Volinsky, Director of Statistics Research at AT&T Labs, Chris Osgood, Co-chair Mayor's Office of New Urban Mechanics Boston City Hall, and Eric Paulos, Associate Professor at Carnegie Mellon University.
The Mayor's Office of New Urban Mechanics has been busy creating apps to improve Boston city life by collecting and analyzing data. Osgood’s team created Citizens Connect, a maintenance-request app that has been downloaded more than 16,000 times and replicated in more than 20 countries since its 2009 launch. They also recently announced a smartphone app called Street Bump. The app runs while users are driving and uses the accelerometer to track potholes. Irregularities in the ride are sent to the city to be investigated and fixed.
And now for our gripes:
In several panels across topics (e-commerce, TV and news included) companies were excited to discuss and show off their newly integrated social features, and talked in depth about how the integration of social features drive traffic and engagement. And yet very few had innovative ideas on how to monetize the advanced user engagement, noting the difference between driving clicks and driving sales. At “The Fashion Fog: Redefining Content & Commerce” panel, speakers representing old and new media spoke of the importance of building a presence and voice across several social media platforms. But few of them had suggestions for how this presence could be utilized in a unique way, and a discussion about commerce became instead focused on marketing. Meanwhile, at the “Second Screen Dashboard” panel, ESPN and the New York Times showed off different second screen initiatives built to drive engagement (and for ESPN, to create new advertising spaces). While both of the initiatives were interesting and innovative (and clearly quite expensive), there was no talk of a specific revenue opportunity surrounding the deepened coverage of live events. The New York Times, when prodded, seemed to suggest they invested in second screen events to foray into the television space, an interesting strategy, but lacking in short-term monetization tactics. In panels of this nature, it would be interesting to see innovative media and e-commerce companies experiment not just with technological developments but potential business models to suit them.The Future of Journalism track at SXSW is broken.
For the past several years, SXSW has hosted a media-specific “Future of Journalism” track, sequestered at the Sheraton a mile from where most of the action happens downtown at the Austin Convention Center and the Hilton. After attending sessions at the Sheraton this year and last year, Bonnier R&D concludes that this conference track needs to be completely reimagined. Currently, it’s a microcosm of the industry as a whole, embodying all the same innovation problems—prominent business leaders and talking heads from top media companies, mostly New York-based, doing the same old hand-wringing amongst themselves about “curation/aggregation/monetization/oh-dear-how-do-we-pay-for-all-this,” while 11 blocks away, the future of media bounces brightly around in the hands of optimistic 25-year-old startup founders from the rest of the world. The culture of old media is broken, and bringing that broken culture to Austin isn't helping. It’s hard to understand why the media industry spends so much time talking about its problems and so little effort learning from startup culture to actually do things differently. Among industries, media is uniquely self-pitying, while also controlling the soapbox to broadcast its own doom-and-gloom message. We’ve got to start looking to innovators outside our own industry if we’re going to make a change.
For more SXSW highlights, check out the beautiful Ogilvy Notes (downloadable, illustrated notes from some of the top sessions at SXSW) and SXSW.com, where audio and video from many of the sessions are slowly being uploaded.
In a very near future there will be an invisible web linking together human beings, physical objects and their virtual representations in an information network. The size of the Internet of Things will be enormous: Ericsson predicts 50 billion devices connected to the Internet in 2020. But we have already passed the threshold in which there are more devices connected to the Internet than there are humans. As a matter of fact, one Internet message in 20 is sent from machine to machine (rather than by human to human), and with the latest version of the Internet—IPv6—we will have Internet addresses for every atom on the face of the earth.
But long before the Internet of Things became a geek meme, Eastern philosophers also had a vision of an “invisible web” connecting all things. As Buddhist Geeks founder Vincent Horn says, “The universe is the original Internet of Things.”
For Horn, the interesting question about our networked future is whether the Internet of Things allows us to “hack the universe” by designing technologies that enable us to feel true spiritual interconnectivity. According to Buddhist theory, you become free only once your actions are harmonized with how things already work. And you become aware of how things are connected only once you understand their interdependence.
Perhaps when the abstract idea of a “web of life” becomes physical—when our plants, houses, boats and bodies are interconnected through technology—interconnectedness will feel more real to us. Perhaps we will better understand the impact of our behaviors when visualized aggregated data shows us the consequences on air quality of taking the bike instead of the car to work. But will this knowledge of our connection to all other things make us better people? Or will we just fuel our addiction to stimulation, becoming experience junkies who use increasingly advanced devices to post updates, tweets and check-ins and win badges, rewards and social status? What happens when our plants start tweeting that they’re thirsty and our cars check themselves in at a parking lot by the beach? What was supposed to be enlightening becomes performance art.
The Internet of Things will produce data sets like we’ve never seen before, but that doesn't necessarily mean we will have more meaningful products. So the question becomes, how can we design connected objects with meaning and mechanics to make people engage in better behavior?
Matt Rolandson says, “The first step is to put meaning on the agenda in the product development process, as emotional and philosophical intention, by encouraging designers with ideas about how to manage intention and awareness. A lot of what is developed today uses the triggers of fear or social stress.
“We could instead design products and services that help people get more meaning by visualizing the bigger picture, connecting services or products to some sense of larger purpose. And then coach them to behavior modification, collectivizing intent instead of competition. The key question to ask ourselves as designers is: How is the network you are creating allowing users to experience power — are they reinforcing a positive identify for themselves or the exact opposite?”
Can the Internet of Things become a movement with a positive impact on our lives? And what can we learn from Buddhism to help make that happen?
As Vincent Horn says, “Buddha was the original mind-hacker—a proto-scientist of the mind. We have been through several revolutions, including in the physical sciences with Galileo, and in the biological sciences with Darwin and his theory of natural selection and evolution. But we have not yet had a revolution in the mind sciences. Now, we are on the brink of a possible exciting revolution in that area. Meditators are being studied by mind scientists to see the actual benefits of meditating and how it impacts the brain. Hopefully, that will lead to technologies that help us become more awake to our senses.
“From a Buddhism perspective, everything rests on the tip of intention. Buddhists look at actions and connections as internally generated. If we become aware of that, train our minds and explore ourselves, we will move from being self-centric to self-aware and thereby become more aware of ourselves in relation to other things. Being aware of how things are connected has the potential to make us less self-centric if designers and developers build experiences with those ideas in mind.”
When individual data gets aggregated into a bigger picture, it will be harder and harder to separate the self from the whole and it will be more apparent how we are connected. What can we do as designers of this emerging, connected world to help people better understand and improve our society? Can we really orchestrate interdependence?
Matt Rolandson sees a paradox in us moving from an “experience economy” to an “attention economy,” since there has never been more attention poverty than right now. Buddhists believe a well-trained attention is at the root of our ability to connect in healthy ways with ourselves and others.
Roland cites a statistic from Charles Duhigg’s book The Power of Habit: over 40% of the decisions we make are unconscious (based on Duke University research). But designers can visualize the impact of decisions and find mechanisms to guide people to make more decisions consciously. One example is games that involve habit design, modeling out scenarios for helping people get where they want to be. Rolandson believes “we should lengthen the horizon and compare the importance of attention with the reality of interdependence”.
But what effect are we facilitating by connecting all the humans and objects around us? Vince Horn does not see technology as a fake simulation of interconnectedness but rather as an extension of our experience. “Technology is not a problem unless we're not aware of it, because then we get absorbed and lost in it. We can always protect ourselves by being aware of technology and its impact on us. But we need better design of technology products that take an un-selfish perspective. And we need networks that encourage us to be selfless. There should be a bottom-up approach to hooking people up with useable data.”
To demonstrate how the Internet of Things is already impacting our behavior, Rolandson brings up IBM Smart Planet and Kiva.org, which is an example of how to be a part of the interconnectivity of intentions. There is also the MIT Medialab experiment with the Copenhagen Wheel, a bicycle wheel that keeps track of friends, fitness, smog and traffic. The wheel can monitor the bicycle's speed, direction and distance traveled, as well as collect data on air pollution. The aggregated data from all bikes shows the implications of biking at an urban scale and encourages people to leave their cars at home.
Horn sees a future when the use of bio- and neuro-feedback gets more advanced and thereby can tell us when our minds start to wander, when our attention goes away. A big part of Buddhist thinking is being reminded to be present, and a number of technologies are being developed toward that end. Vince sees a huge potential to automate certain activities in order to free up energy to explore new vistas of the mind.
As the Internet of Things is being developed, there is a question of whether the movement toward an interconnected society will be hindered by monetization. But Rolandson believes it won’t necessarily be a problem. “We have to stop perceiving everything non-profit as good cause and everything monetized causing destruction,” he says. “There are certainly ways of finding interesting sustainable economic models to drive innovation forward.”
Hopefully, the future will bring products and services that change our behavior in positive ways, as well as technologies that help us understand our connectedness—that neither our inner worlds nor the outer one are a series of aimless accidents.
Vincent Horn (@vincenthorn), Buddhist Geek and Innovator, was recently named one of 50 people who are going to change the world by Wired UK.
Matt Rolandson (@rollo) is a partner at multiple award-winning design studio Ammunition Group.
Sara Ohrvall (@saraohrvall) is global director of R&D at Bonnier