Friday, June 25, 2010

Bridging the Numerati-Ignoscenti tracking divide?

I've just finished reading an informative book on the likes of us - "They've got your number" by Stephen Baker. The book talks about the Numerati - "mathematicians who are mapping our behaviour" in various industries, not just e-commerce, for example in the workplace, in politics, blogging and healthcare. There were a number of themes in the book, none of which came as a surprise. For example, Baker talks about the large amounts of data available in each scenario, and how powerful mathematical tools and knowledgable analysts are required to not only derive insight but the correct interpretation of this data. In the chapter on terrorism he pointed out the importance that the NSA (or GCHQ) analysis is correct first time; in other industries as Avinash likes to point out, we can (and should) learn from our mistakes; indeed, failing makes success easier.

Whilst Baker's book didn't try and paint a picture of illicit snooping and stir up the usual scare stories, it did get me thinking about how this subject is perceived by the general public. There is a lot of information available on internet technology, and more of this is filtering into the public arena. For example, browser selection is becoming more sophisticated; whereas a couple of years ago Firefox was the preserve of net geeks, now my parents are using it - Microsoft's share of the market is eroding. But it's not just browser choice that people are becoming more au fait with; it's the contents of the options menu within the browser, and with it cookie blocking, then private browsing and opt-out addons.

Whilst we should respect the wish for privacy of those who've chosen to block cookies, adopt private browsing or install these addons, we should not be scared of making the case for tracking so that these people have all the facts at their disposal before they make their decision. As people become more aware of the perceived murky world of corporate tracking, without a clear counter-argument being proposed it's easy for the public to assume it's of no benefit to them, or worse. And yet, one of the most popular websites on the planet is in that position precisely because of its tracking. People agree that Amazon is a great site, and are impressed by its cross-selling abilities and its recommendations based on their search history (both on and off the site). It surely shouldn't be hard to use this to sell the benefits of tagging a site. Whilst it's becoming fashionable to talk about how we live in a "Big Brother" society with constant surveillance, be it CCTV or online tracking, it should be possible to make the distinction between a true "Big Brother" society whereby monitoring takes place to crush dissent, and one which is built to help people do what they want to on a website more effectively.

So how to do we go about getting rid of this "Big Brother" image before the battle's lost?
1.Site Transparency. A clearly stated (i.e. not legal speak) and up-front privacy policy page (i.e not hidden away in the smallest font possible somewhere inaccessible), explaining the methods used and the information gleaned.
2. Present a clear case to the public. Whilst the case is clear, how it should be communicated is less so. Is this something for the WAA to do? The case needs to be made globally, and whilst they have a presence across many countries, this is something which needs to get into the living rooms of people across the world. Web analytics is being discussed in German and American parliaments at the moment; maybe petitioning your local polititian to raise a question could bring it into the public domain. What is clear is that the internet is a global phenomenon, and, as with policing it, lobbying it is hard to do.
3. Better education. In a previous post I discussed the importance of educating children in the internet. IT is an important topic, and the learning about using the internet is a major part of it, be it tracking, site construction or communication. Informing young people of all the facts at an early age is the best way to remove this image, if a slightly long-termist one...
4. Improve your site! Earn the right to stop people deleting your cookies - people would be more reluctant to delete their cookies to a site if they got an Amazon experience from it.

So there we have it, my thoughts on how we can turn the ignoscenti into the cognoscenti. Have I left anything out? I'd love to hear your comments.

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