A charter of classy data use: be good, be useful

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Two things were obvious throughout TugLife IV the recent pop-up conference we ran in Shoreditch. One is that the forensic mining of data for insights into people’s lives, their habits, intentions and beliefs is the kind of thing that can get you in a lot of trouble. Exhibit A: speaker Patrick Fagan, once Cambridge Analytica’s lead psychologist, now a man whose old laptop resides at the Information Commissioner’s Office.

The other one, of course, is that everyone and his dog is forensically mining data for insights into people’s lives, their habits, intentions and so on. Brands do it, publishers do it, tech giants wouldn’t be tech giants if they didn’t do it. Barack Obama’s campaign did it and everyone said how marvellously clever it all was. The Guardian and Channel 4, unmaskers of Cambridge Analytica, do it themselves, as Fagan noted.

His case alone illustrates the vanishingly fine lines in play here. Evidently a thinking man with a passion for data science, Fagan was clearly exasperated at news reports alleging dark practices, and categorically denied that he saw any signs of CA’s alleged role in Brexit. He also produced the line of the conference when he wryly compared his former employer in its heyday to a strip club: “everybody wants to go, but nobody wants to be seen there.”

It is very clear - if it ever wasn’t - that targeted marketing, clever customer service, online recommendations and predictions, convenient log-ins all over the web and a hundred other good things depend on the sharing and analysis of our data. The secret, for those keen to avoid data disgrace, is to do it carefully, safely, with the right intentions and in a good cause. And, if you can - though Fagan will tell you it isn’t easy - do try and avoid being scapegoated for doing more or less what everyone else is doing.

Most don't mind data analysis, but...

For brands, it ought to be easy. Their aim isn’t a political one, it’s to provide a better service, hone their marketing activity, learn what they’re doing right and what they’re doing wrong, and develop new products that people like more than the old ones.

As long as they’re only doing that, within the law and in observance of GDPR, accusations of dodgy data use are never likely to be their problem, because another fact is this: most of us don’t mind a bit of data analysis when there’s obviously something in it for us. In fact, we generally think it’s great.

“People want to be able to see and track their data, and they don’t particularly mind giving up that data, as long as they can see a benefit to themselves for doing so,” said Simon Moriarty, Mintel’s director of trends EMEA, also at TugLife IV. “It’s about not being creepy, it’s about being unobtrusive. Trust is harder to earn and easier to lose than ever before.”

It’s fairly evident that data mining needs a rebrand, and the best way for brands to help towards that is to combine their data and their clout to do something good.

Moriarty had international examples: Maserati dealerships in China who capture photos and driving interests through a video game and then use facial recognition technology to recognise and help serve customers in-store; Red Bull’s Brazilian social tool to help kids connect and form bands with fellow musicians from other colleges.

In the same vein, outdoor clothing brand Patagonia has launched Patagonia Action Works, a digital platform that connects people to events and petitions, allowing them to get involved in local environmental initiatives. No-one tends to object when brands take their data and use it to do something for their benefit, or in aid of causes they care about.

The data giants - Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Twitter, Spotify - are now in an interesting position, torn between trumpeting their scale and the commercial power of their data insights, and assuring users they’re still essentially nice guys doing awesome stuff for us.

Temptations and obligations

They know that the thing that gives them their power could also be the very thing that unravels them. So their challenge is to make a careful distinction between their own data-driven activities and the kind of dark data arts that get you covered in tar and feathers and chased out of town.

“The public stays public with Twitter, and the private always stays private,” said Twitter account strategist Ned Miles at the conference, describing how a process of existential soul-searching had led Twitter to this simple maxim.

Miles illustrated both the temptations and the obligations of data giants, describing Twitter as “the largest publicly-available archive of human thought ever to have existed,” which, after all, is quite a thing in itself. Abusing that position, he suggested, risks violating the delicate user relationship that has made Twitter what it is. “We have to be pretty clear where the line is,” said Miles, “and pretty conscious of not crossing it.”

That would seem to suggest a sound universal principle, not only for data giants, but for all brands: don’t do anything with data that you wouldn’t want your users to catch you doing.

But that should to be a minimum. For those who want to actively further the cause of data rehabilitation, do something with the valuable data you hold that returns some of that value to the users and consumers who give it to you.

In a year of GDPR, amid talk of nationalising excessively powerful social networks, prominent data-capturers find themselves under pressure to pursue a strategy of benevolent, or at least non-sleazy data use, and everyone knows the reputational and legal penalties for getting caught doing anything else.

Brands should all be doing likewise - don’t be evil where data is concerned, and do as much as you can to be good, to be gratuitously helpful, to be useful, to be smart. Data analysis isn’t going away, but every brand has some small power to help give it a good name.

Nick Beck, CEO, Tug
Image source: Shutterstock/alexskopje