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Of algorithms and daily life

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It is that time of the year, many of us look back at the year just gone, and think about what 2019 will bring us. A time for introspection, maybe giving thanks, and making plans for the future. Or, for some, a time to plan on which bar or club, or restaurant to spend their Xmas bonus in.

Nothing wrong with that at all! For me 2018 started making me more aware of algorithms and big data, and how it will affect me all of us, and not just me personally in 2019.

So – what is an algorithm? Simply, it is defined as a process or set of actions to carry out to achieve targets and/or problem solve. Algorithms are used in conjunction with Big Data to analyse – and attempt to predict – trends – be it weather, world trade or economic progress, crime, and now personal choices.

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Big Data describes extremely large data sets that are analysed using algorithms via computers to reveal patterns and trends. Now how does this affect us personally? Well, as an active social network user, all my online behaviour and personal data – web searches, online shopping, likes of certain groups, comments on politics or places that I have visited – are all collected and stored online.

This is my digital footprint. The relevant social network service – for example, Facebook – can now use this data to analyse my interests and likes and match this with ads to target me with. This is called targeted marketing. For example – I surf Amazon, looking for a pair of trainers.

Unless I have actively blocked the service, sometime in the following weeks I will get targeted emails from Amazon, bringing my attention to special deals on the sort of shoes I was looking at – down to colour and size.

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On Facebook, I get pop up ads doing the same, or letting me know that a close friend is interested in an activity near me. This is how algorithms are used to target consumers daily.

I wrote is detail some time back about the use of big data and algorithms to target in the United States (US) voters – seen quite rightly as unfair manipulation of personal data, leading to the introduction of stringent controls on data used in this way.

It also led to the very public roasting of Mark Zuckerberg (currently worth more than $54 billion, by the way). I believe also is a major factor in the current US investigation of its President’s collusion with the Russians to manipulate the last US Presidential election results. An example of the negative power of big data and algorithm use.

But there also some positive uses and trends, and as more of us get access to the internet – we shall personally experience more of these into the New Year and onwards.

America, and other countries over the years have used a crime reduction technique called – CRUSH – Criminal Reduction Using Statistical History.

They analysed previous criminal trends, by geographical location, time and even weather and ensured that they targeted crime hotspots. This had extremely successful results with record arrests and crime avoidance.

Another scenario – which uses the growing influence of the Internet Of Things (IOT) – could go like this. Say you are a Fitbit user, a wearable device, which records and analyses your health, sleeping and waking activities, including your diet.

Now this combines with IOT devices at your local supermarket, and lets them know that you are in the shop, and your dietary preferences. They can then target you with appropriate food adverts.

Marketers, of course, are loving this technology. They outline the benefits to clients and consumers as including focussed personalised advertising which is more cost effective and more content relevant.

So, you only see the adverts that specifically reflect your needs, based on your online activity. But the question is – how happy are you with a device professing to know your needs more than you do?

Do you welcome an unsolicited advert that focusses on what you personally were thinking about? There lies a question to be answered in a later column entry.

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