At the recent launch of Touchpoints 5 at BAFTA I was given just 15 minutes to explain my personal take on the future of data and information. You can download the actual charts from the IPA website. Meanwhile I have adapted what I said at the event into the blog below. I also wrote a piece specifically on the origins and evolution of the Touchpoints survey (yes I was there at the birth) which you can find here
The Future of Data and Information..?
Welcome to my ‘mind palace’. It’s not as well organised as Sherlock’s and there’s a lot of dust hidden under the carpets…
The original concept of Touchpoints is around a decade old and the first baby Touchpoints was delivered back in 2006 – I don’t know if it is possible to be nostalgic for just eight years ago – or for the ‘Noughties’ more generally- but I was struck by how much has changed in terms of technology in just eight short years.
Blackberry ruled the business world, alongside Palm Pilots. Social media meant Myspace and Friends Reunited… we were talking about Linden Dollars rather than Bitcoin and I was part of a TNS initiative to see if we should invest in a Second Life virtual hang out – thankfully we didn’t but more due to lack of time than desire – I was very keen!
From technological innovation to technological understanding..
Despite those false starts the Noughties really was a decade of phenomenal innovation.
Google was already around by then, but came to own the decade. If we look at this timeline we can see that genuine media game changers were coming along on almost an annual basis.
However I’d argue that the last real game changer was the iPad in 2010, effectively a whole new screen on which to consume content. There’s been innovation since then, but ideas like Instagram, Vine and What’s App are variations on a theme that have been ingested by the existing social media giants.
So it’s my firm belief that we are now moving from an era when we were busy marvelling at the latest new arrivals, to one in which we will be more focused on understanding how these new technologies and services fit together and mapping the new digital eco-system. In that sense I’d argue we are moving from a phase of technological innovation into an era of technological understanding. That doesn’t mean there is no more innovation to come, but Twitter is eight years old, Facebook ten years and Google is almost at the age of consent…
From a media centric to consumer centric focus..
As a result the focus also shifts from marvelling at these new technologies, to studying the data produced by them: understanding how people integrate them into their daily lives. A shift from the technology to the consumers themselves. It is an ethos that Touchpoints has been championing since it began: the idea that, rather than attempting to map consumers onto individual media silos, we need to be mapping media onto the consumers themselves, to better understand their various media touch points through their day.
Above all, we are in an age of simultaneous media consumption, with all that implies and the new Touchpoints data shows this. The future of data and information lies in widening our understanding of cross media and cross-platform media exposure and answering vital questions.
Advertisers will need even more reassurance around attention and engagement in a multi-tasking multi-screen future. Does that mean we need to move beyond simple exposure measures? Multi-tasking also means that we can’t simply add time up. Media days are now longer than 24 hours. Should time ‘shared’ with another media be less valued than solus consumption?
Now this is the point when the phrase ‘Big Data’ usually rears its head. It’s not a term I am keen on, as big is not always best, but it certainly can be enormous. The IT industry is coming up with new and improbable names for data volumes – my favourite being a brontobyte, which sounds terrifying until you remember that brontosauruses were vegetarian. By way of illustration, the NSA data centre in Ohio is rumoured to be able to store between a Zettabyte and a Yotabyte of data.
Or to put this all in context..
..make up Planet Earth itself. Media Big Data isn’t quite that big, but comes from a variety of sources. I wrote a paper for the IPA called the Big Opportunity, which looks at the strengths and weaknesses of both Big Data and surveys and is available on the IPA site for free. Here, my brief is to make some predictions about the future of data and information – and then hope that I retire before I am proven wrong.
Who’s data is it anyway..?
I could give a whole presentation just on the politics of data. I do believe that whilst the current news cycle focuses on taxation, immigration, celebrities and which bunch are likely to be in power next, data – its access, use and ownership – is the biggest issue of our age and that’s what future historians will look back on, not Obamacare, UKIP or house prices in London, but on the decisions we are making right now.
Data has the potential to bring down dictators and join the citizens of the world together to reduce our differences and monitor those who rule us – or it has the potential to be used as an Orwellian weapon of mass suppression, in which our lives are controlled without us ever understanding how.
..but here are a few specific predictions related to specifically to media and ‘big data’
1. Younger consumers have different ideas about privacy than we do, with a much more liberal approach to personal information – they are willing to surrender their privacy in return for free stuff.
2. Consumers are becoming more data aware and some observers believe that soon they will be taking control of their own personal data and monetising it themselves. So, in one scenario the future of data and information lies not in our hands but in the hands of consumers themselves who will exchange their data in return for goods and services – data capitalism.
3. Expect a battle over access to data from the smartphone mic, which will be a rich source of data as audio-recognition programmes want to work out what you are being exposed to – be it shazam or civolution.
4. Programmatic buying is the most logical extension of Big Data but is in danger of commoditising media and removes the whole concept of the presenter effect. I do think it will be used as part of a toolkit to save time, but the major campaigns will require more skill, instinct and finesse in their placement than any algorithm can provide.
5. We are already seeing the rise of the dashboard and of pre-processed data. Our whole industry is based around the concept of respondent data sets and without significant investment, the current packages we use to examine survey data won’t cope in an era of Big Data APIs.
6. Above all I think the future of data and information will require new skillsets, something I talked about in this very auditorium back in November at the MRG conference
Media Research at a crossroads…
The whole research industry is undergoing something of an existential angst – what industry do we work in? Two of the big research agencies are loath to even refer to themselves as research companies any more and that is because the legacy market research industry is really pulling apart into three distinct skillsets . Alongside long- established research skills, distinct skill sets in modelling, fusion and advanced statistical methods are becoming disproportionately important and also vital are advanced IT skills in the handling, processing and delivery of Big Data sets. It’s in these two newer categories that the agencies – and perhaps our industry as a whole – are perceived as having a major skills gap.
It has been suggested that media researchers are moving from being farmers, lovingly designing and tending their own samples, to being chefs, creating insights from high quality ingredients – yes, some of it homegrown, but also created from other research and data available.
So it is fast becoming a cliché to say it, but we are moving into an era in which hybrid solutions are becoming the norm for cross-platform research. However that does have implications for data users, as it will mean that research methodologies will become harder for the average research user – as opposed to research practitioner – to understand.
“Tell me why it matters..”
The era of most research users being able to understand ‘how it works’ is coming to an end. Does the research user need to understand how it works, so long as it does?
This mirrors the development of consumer technology in my lifetime, where we have moved from being able to build things ourselves, to being able to at least fix them, to getting someone to fix it, to just throwing it away if it doesn’t work…
So the education of users will need to focus on the user benefit of good research, not the minutiae of the research process – “Tell me why it matters”
The problem is that Big Data has all the sexy and seductive words at the moment. Putting the sexy back in ‘robustness’ is going to be a bit of challenge.
However in my opinion too much of what is coming out of media research at the moment about Big Data is too reactionary, too defensive, talking about what Big Data can’t do, or how scary it is, or personal anecdotes.
We need to talk about the about the opportunities of Big Data and the strengths of what research can add, and advocate consumer-centric as opposed to data-centric insights. In particular we need to target the advertisers.
Context is King
Above all, survey research will remain part of the future of data and information for one simple reason. I go to a lot of conferences and for a while every chart had to contain the words ‘Content is king’, but I‘d argue in the Big Data era that it is Context that is now king, that the more that individual ‘Big Data’ silos become available, the more we need survey-based research to tie them together and provide the ‘Bigger Picture’ Without the bigger picture I don’t know whether 48 hours of youtube video or 28,000 tumbr blogs created each hour is a huge figure or a small one in the context of 7 billion people on planet earth – do you?
It is this need for context that makes Touchpoints more relevant that ever, possibly even more relevant than when it started 8 years ago.
In itself it’s now a hybrid of survey and passive data. It provides a context for industry currency data and is the glue that allows that data to be fused together. But it can now also be the bridge between survey data and Big Data – like the recent Facebook fusion to BARB – and also provide a context for clients own proprietary data sets.
Let’s keep it simple..
However my final point about the future of data and information is a simple one – quite literally. There can be a real danger in over-complicating things.
We live in an era than makes a fetish of complexity and we brag about how turbo-charged is the era in which we live as if the 1990s was somehow the stoneage. Here for example is a graphic someone has done to attempt to explain Game Of Thrones – a real celebration of its inpenetrability and a long way from the days of Starsky & Hutch.
The reason I show this chart is that it reminds me of this one I saw recently of the video delivery eco-system in the US that was equally baffling. In working with data our objective has to be to make things simpler and bring insight, not to dazzle our clients with complexity.
At the end of the day we have migrated from a system in which each medium was defined by the vehicle that delivered it – a TV, a radio, a newspaper, to a digital system, but it really is not that complicated: we have content…. distributed via platforms…. to a range of screen sizes. Future generations will laugh at how complicated we make that sound. Real progress is about making things simpler.
Nonetheless, with surveys like Touchpoints to help us understand how consumers fit into the picture, I’d say that the future of data and information is a bright one.