Disney's big data dream is no Mickey Mouse effort

Disney's data scientists will have their hands full making the most of the bits that represent your every move

Disneyland is the place where dreams come true, and soon this will be the case for big data junkies, too.

Or maybe it's a nightmare.

The Walt Disney Co. recently announced its intention to "evolve" the experience of its theme park guests with the ultimate goal of giving everyone an RFID-enabled bracelet to transform their every move through the company's parks and hotels into a steady stream of information for the company's databases.

The data gathering will begin right at the gate. The company is slowly replacing the turnstiles with little stylized golden orbs. When you bring your wrist in range, the orb glows gently to welcome the new customer and start the accounting transaction moving another $88 to the bottom line. It's all very pretty to the eye and magical to the heart, but it requires untold numbers of lines of software that fill up the databases.

The size of the challenge facing Disney's big data team is easy to feel. Just go to any of Disney's parks an hour before opening, and people will already be there, queued up and ready to run to the most popular ride. The anticipation is palpable, as is the fact that Disney's big data team will need to take a huge leap forward to handle the pending firehose of information.

More than 17 million people stream through the gates of the Magic Kingdom in Florida each year, many during the first minutes of the day. At all of the Disney Parks throughout the world, about 100 million people enter each year, and each one will create its own entries in the databases just to enter the parks.

That row in the table will only be the beginning. Tracking the flow through the parks will come next. Right now, the park prints out pieces of paper called "FastPasses" to let people get reservations to ride. The wristbands and golden orbs will replace these slips of paper and most of everything else. Every reservation, every purchase, every ride on Dumbo, and maybe every step is waiting to be noticed, recorded, and stored away in a vast database. If you add up the movements and actions, it's easy to imagine leaving a trail of hundreds of thousands of bytes of data after just one day in the park. That's a rack of terabyte drives just to record this.

The databases, though, won't just record information; they'll also be used to enhance the trip, remembering things about you. The wristbands will be coded to our names and the characters who speak will be able to greet us with these names. We'll get bit roles in the great theater production of the park, and our wrists will be another item in the Internet of things.

These extra databases have the potential to be dramatically bigger. Disney has already experimented with overlaying interactive games onto the park. One game at EPCOT turns a mobile phone into a high-tech detection device called FONE (Field Operative Notification Equipment). FONE gives you instructions and triggers the walls and dolls to come alive when you and you alone come within range.

Disney is being careful to step around the questions of privacy. We'll have a choice whether we want the characters to greet us by name. We won't need to use the wristbands at first. You can still have a relatively untracked existence at the park if you want it. But as they add more features and games with interactive FONEs, the game will grow more virtual, and we'll have no choice but to leave behind a big data trail. Of course you can always pay cash at the gate and give a fake name, I guess.

No matter who we pretend to be, we'll leave a data trail for the algorithms to digest. Will any big data scientist be able to find any statistical significance in it? Will any rack of cloud computers be able to record the data torrents let alone run any computation on them? Is there a smarter way for people to move through the parks?

Those are the open questions for Disney's data scientists. In the past, the company relied heavily on the kind of robot geniuses that could make Abe Lincoln stand up in the Hall of Presidents theater. Now they'll need the mathematicians and statisticians to parse the data and turn that into something that will reimagine just what it means to go to Disney World. My only hope is that they can use it to relieve the crush at the opening gate. There must be some math that will fix that.

This story, "Disney's big data dream is no Mickey Mouse effort," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Get the first word on what the important tech news really means with the InfoWorld Tech Watch blog. For the latest developments in business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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