SOCIETY | May 31, 2019

Our data-driven lives

This is how and why Big Data and IoT increasingly orientate the choices and behaviors of companies and people

Big Data, for users, are like particulates: their presence is not felt until the effects are noticed. Effects which, in the case of Big Data technology, are perceived as positive: thanks to the collection and analysis of data, in fact, it is possible to “profile” the user, i.e. to obtain a “portrait” of his/her tastes and interests, aimed at building a “tailor-made” offer of possible products or services to be purchased.

The Retail Transformation survey on the perception of technologies by users in Digital Transformation, carried out by the Digital Transformation Institute and CFMT in collaboration with SWG and Assintel, shows how convenient it is for users, for example, to view customized offers. Convenient at least until they understand that this activity is closely linked to granting (and analyzing) data useful for understanding the tastes of the person using the service or wanting to buy a product. The people being interviewed showed that they are more interested in the “protection of their privacy” than in the possibility of obtaining special discounts, probably because, when quoting the word “privacy” defensive walls are raised by those who often unconsciously give their data freely and on a daily basis to large platforms, such as those that manage Social Network websites or search engines, but are “jealous” of their information when there is a reference to this being used for marketing purposes.

After all, it has long been understood that giving one’s consent to data collection when registering for a service, with a Social Network or downloading an application does not help people to understand the meaning of data collection and to connect this to the “free” use of something which, in reality, is paid for.

Against a certain “fear” by people in relation to data collection, the opportunities are still not very evident, given the limited applications of this technology by Italian companies. If we think
of the retail sector, thanks to Big Data we can benefit from real-time promotions and tailor-made prices which are useful for saving, receiving personalized and better services and products, seeing products or services created
to respond to new needs or personal tastes which have been intercepted and “listened to”. Benefits known more often by hearsay rather than by direct experience.

When Big Data meets IoT

If we associate Big Data technology with IoT, the positive impacts are destined to increase. Thanks to connected objects, in fact, it is possible to collect data which must then be analyzed in order to guide users’ choices in the best way. Think of Smart Cities and of the possibility, for example, of guiding the user in the search for a parking spot thanks to the real-time analysis of sensors placed in the parking spaces or of putting him/her on the lookout as regards the security level of the area where he/she left the car. If we refer to the commerce sector, we can think of connected objects, already available in some realities, able to detect the purchases of a person in a store and to direct him/her, in real time, towards searching for other products to “match up” with those purchased or which are less expensive, perhaps because on offer. Better cities and quality of life increased by 10-30% thanks to the use of technologies applied to urban contexts, according to McKinsey’s measurement last year. Better lives, where the comfort of being guided is necessarily bound to the transfer of data.

Businesses and Big Data

If we look at companies, although both Big Data and IoT technologies are well known, the actual applications are still limited and are destined to be the object of investment by companies over the next three years. There are various difficulties which hinder the adoption of Big Data technologies: scarce financial and human resources, but above all the complexity in having to redesign business processes, putting into place an overall medium-long term strategy. This is not trivial, especially for the Italian entrepreneurial fabric, mostly made up of small and medium-sized companies with levels of digital awareness which are sometimes too limited and which are not even open to using services built on Big Data and offered by large players. This is the case, for example, of targeted and personalized advertising campaigns which can be activated on social networks, thanks to the collection and analysis of data made by others, but which potentially have beneficial effects even for smaller companies.

There is no shortage of complexities even when we talk about IoT and businesses, cities and objects which become “smart”, that is able to produce value through data. According to the survey, the Smart City and Smart Factory sectors, i.e. those that could bring tangible benefits but require a profound change in the management processes, are those which suffer most. A change in which the technological aspect is probably the least complex one to deal with.

Data-driven choices and lives?

Our society, our lives, the lives of companies will be increasingly data-driven thanks to the rapid and constant increase in both the data availability and the calculation power capable of extracting value. Decisions are and will be based on data and entrusted to artificial intelligences and machines which are growing up and will grow up “living and breathing” these data. For this reason, a reflection is necessary in relation to the complex transformation which people and companies will undergo: data, in fact, are only a version of reality, not an exact copy of it. A version that could be influenced by stereotypes and prejudices, such as those concerning gender, which data are not immune to and which could lead to making wrong, non-inclusive, unjust decisions. Therefore, the wealth of ethical values which allows us to make the necessary corrections will have to support Big Data and IoT in making choices. This is and will be the irreplaceable contribution of humankind.

Sonia Montegiove