Image: Fernanda B. Viégas, Martin Wattenberg, and Kate Hollenbach

Data Tracking

It’s not all bad

Christine Outram
Oct 9, 2013 · 3 min read

There’s a new fast-growing global resource on the table. Can you guess what it is? No single country owns it, but all governments want it, corporations are building whole business units around it, and even the United Nations is exploring its value.

You guessed it. It’s digital data.

Digital data is rapidly becoming the backbone to both our public institutions and private corporations. Digital data let’s you know the best time to buy that stock, when to post on Facebook so you’ll get more likes, or the perfect moment to leave your home to intersect with the bus that’s coming down the street.

And to cope with this rapidly expanding resource we’re developing new tools. Some tools scare us: like the tools that the NSA has developed to keep an eye on the population. And some tools take us by surprise: remember when Target used a 16-year olds purchase-history data to predict that she was pregnant? But there are other tools that emphasize the good that digital data can do in the world.

In other words, it’s not all bad.

Take the work of the United Nations Global Pulse Group. Together with the company Crimson Hexagon, they’ve been experimenting with a tool that analyzes tweets that reference the price of staple foods — rice, flour etc. In Indonesia (one of the most prolific tweeting nations in the world!) they used the tool to show that Twitter can paint a real time picture of the price of rice that strongly correlates with the official Food Price Inflation Index (a leading indicator used in the tracking of slow-moving economic crises). The difference? Twitter painted the picture in real time, while official statistics are still only released periodically*.

And then there’s research like Trash Track the project where MIT’s SENSEable City Lab kept digital tabs on thousands of pieces of trash as they made their journey from trashcan to final resting place. The data and accompanying visualization shed light, for the first time, on the removal chain: making evident the inefficiencies of our waste-removal systems and suggesting solutions, like shifting the location of recycling facilities so that trash travels a shorter distance.

MIT’s SENSEable City Lab tracked over 3000 pieces of trash. Each item started in Seattle.

In the end, it comes back to what I refer to as “the three T’s”: Transparency, Trade-offs and Trust.Whether it’s government or big business, we’re often not sure what people are doing with our data, the trade-offs (admit it — you rarely read those terms and conditions), and we’re really not sure if we trust them. And so we find ourselves rallying against its use. The danger of course is that our fears will drive-into-law decisions that might restrict the dangers of data but will likely also restrict the good. Is this really what we want?

So next time you find yourself staring in the face of your data being collected or monitored ask yourself: is it clear what they are doing with my data? What are the trade-offs? And lastly, do I trust this organization? If the answer is yes, then let your fear go.


Since moving to the US, I’ve been a research fellow at MIT’s SENSEable City Lab, founded the think tank City Innovation Group and am currently the Senior Inventionist at Deutsch LA.

    Christine Outram

    Written by

    Building the future of education @everydae. Inventor of the electric bike @CPHWheel. Writing about #tech #cities #startups and #gamechangers

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