May 28, 2013
I love data. I love gadgets. And gadgets that collect data send me over the top.
My wife would probably argue that they send me WAY over the top. It seems that I have slowly amassed a collection of data gathering gadgets that bemuse and perplex her. For instance, I wear a Fitbit Flex that monitors my daily activity level and my sleep. I use an Aria scale to monitor my weight and body fat. My blood pressure and heart rate? Withings. My home? Dropcam and Nest. My visitors? Schlage. You get the point.
That's why when I saw the new Automatic, I couldn't resist. It interacts with your car's computer to track all kinds of stuff like driving style, fuel consumption, location, accidents, etc. When I announced that I had pre-ordered the Automatic, my wife gave me a blank stare and said, "Why on earth do you want to know all that stuff?"
I was flummoxed. Doesn't she see how cool it is just to know? Of course, just knowing isn't really the point (no matter how cool it is). By collecting all of this data, I get to play the never-ending game of trying to optimize my life.
Individually, these sensors let me optimize individual dimensions. Can Fitbit increase my activity level by making me take the stairs? Can Nest reduce my air conditioning use and decrease my carbon footprint? Can Automatic change my driving habits to improve fuel economy? Where it gets more interesting, though, is when I combine multiple dimensions to perform broader analysis. When my activity level is low, does it affect my sleep? Does less sleep affect my blood pressure? Do I drive more aggressively when my blood pressure is high?
So, I guess you see where I'm taking this...
The really exciting opportunity is not just micromanaging myself with little sensors, but aggregating really large collections of such data across all of the people that use these kinds of devices. Throw in some metadata like gender or age and we have an opportunity to identify all sorts of patterns that may improve our health, reduce our energy consumption, or save us money. This is the promise of big data – can we discover useful patterns in the massive amount of data that we generate in our digital or physical lives?
Of course, this scares a lot of folks. All of this data could be used against us. Would my auto insurer want to know my driving habits and charge me more? Would my health insurer want to drop me if my blood pressure or weight gets too high? Would law enforcement want to know where my car was at 10:30 PM on May 3rd?
Perhaps I'm naïve (I prefer to think of myself as an optimist), but I'm confident that we'll figure out how to deal with all of these privacy concerns. We can anonymize data in aggregate to do analysis. Insurance companies will learn to provide incentives for good driving. Law enforcement will have rigorous standards to meet to gain access to my data unless it's a crisis (like all that big data that was so effectively used after the Boston Marathon bombings). Besides, welcome to the future, our definitions of privacy are quickly changing whether we like it or not.
There are lots of hard questions to be answered in this new frontier. I like hard questions...they give us an excuse to go gather some more data.