The reason big data has become such a big cliche topic in the last few years is simple. It made selling digital advertising to media agencies and brands easier. The more we know, the better we can hone in on particular audiences for our clients. The future was mapped out through the prism of this torrent of data, allowing us to know ever more about consumers through their digital practises, and how and when best to reach them.


There are, however, problems with this future. An honest media planner, for instance, might speculate on the reliability of big data when it comes to providing working insight. Nate Silver, the US data specialist/Pollster who became famous when he accurately predicted most of the last two American elections, calls this the problem of extracting the “signal from the noise.” All that contextless data/noise makes locating true value harder.


Then there is the apparently unrelated issue of privacy. Big data works, insofar as it does, on the premise that gleaning as much information as possible from consumers, without them really knowing, is the future. We the consumers provide data that allows the likes of Google and Facebook to sell that info directly to the advertiser. This isn’t done overtly. It’s written into the small print but this land grab happened, more or less, without discussion. The contract goes something like this: you get the app (whether social network, email or search) for free, while the owners get as much info on you as they can.


The problems of privacy and the lack of context in data are actually linked. Not involving the consumer in the process of extracting data makes a lot of the data valueless. Am I looking at baby clothes because I’m expecting or because a friend is? Doesn’t matter, nobody asked me, and the cookies have already sold me to the unsuspecting baby brands. None of us gets good value from this.


There are other futures. Tictrac, for example, is a monitoring service that tracks devices you already own and aggregates the data, providing usable information to you. You can use your own data to reach for lifestyle and health improvement, while that high-quality data is passed on to relevant brands. There is more agency here for the consumer, more a sense that they are a willing part of the relationship between brand and media space owner, rather than simply the end product. They are the recipient of a genuinely innovative service and, in return, directly involved in improving the quality of their own data collection.


This is a future of data where brands, advertisers and consumers agree to know more about each other, and get more out of the relationship as a result.


By Oliver Brown