Human data is the future of information

That’s good for everyone, as it respects that data has become so important to people’s livelihood—their credit scores just as much their personalities—that it shouldn’t be treated differently than they would be treated

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With GDPR finally on the books, I’ve been thinking a lot about the core issues of this truly global data regulation. Last month, I dove into how anxiety about bad data hygiene can be solved with interface—building back-end data hubs and intuitive frontend to empower staffers to interact with data and solve business problems.

Ultimately, GDPR forces organizations to think about the “people data” in their systems in a humanistic way. It’s as if, after three decades of the internet and ten years of smartphones, people have said, “You can have my information, just treat me like a person.”

Defining human data

Human data can conjure images of biometrics—a heart rate during a bike ride, a fingerprint that unlocks a phone. But that data, which is easily captured and crunched, speaks only to our physicality, not to the nuanced, social aspects of humanity.

Human data, on the other hand, exists as nonnumerical, unstructured data sets. It comes from online surveys and social media posts; it says something about your personality, which is why big data sometimes struggles to analyze it.

Twitter is a good example. A single tweet generates reams of raw data—times, dates, locations—associated with the device it was typed or tapped on, the browser or app it was sent from, the servers it passes through. Those strings of letters and numbers are immutable, but they’re insignificant to the people reading and replying to the original 280 characters.

Those characters comprise only a tiny fraction of the tweet’s overall data, but they are etched in digital stone and as unique as human thought. They’re so layered with meaning and so open to interpretation that they can help start a revolution just as much as they can upend a person’s life. They beg to be respected as much as the person who created them.

The business case for human data

Viewed through this prism, human data seems like an obvious choice for a business’s focus. In today’s commercial climate, where an online retailer doesn’t profit from a customer until he or she has shopped there four times, retention and brand loyalty make the difference. What company wouldn’t want to know its customers better than they know themselves?

Yet the trend of the digital world has been to reduce people to identifiers. One strain of thought holds that people are best classified by “thing data”: what product did they buy, when did they buy it, where were they when they bought it, where did they have it shipped, and so on.

With “thing data” on hand, the inclination is to cross-reference it with “organization data,” or the process of sorting customers to dump them into various buckets. Then put it all together, run it through some “big data” algorithm, and predict what generic customer X wants to buy.

That was the siren song of the “age of big data.” But it posed two big problems. The first is that without the right systems, an organization will be lost regardless of its data volume. Skimping on a data hub that unites master data and application data is a major misstep; viewing a customer only through CRM is ineffective if the customer has also interacted with four other systems that can’t communicate with one another.

And that dovetailed with the second problem: People starting to generate so much data just going about their everyday lives—using a smartphone to send a text while sending a tweet while scheduling a meeting while liking a photo while buying a shirt while paying for a coffee while listening to music in a coffee shop on Wi-Fi in a location—that their data became indistinguishable from their human selves. And if their data was the very essence of their humanity, the organizations that captured this data would need not only to make sense of it, but to treat it like they would treat an actual human being.

Smart businesses have recognized that this new reality is the future, and they’ve gotten ahead of it. Why fuss over a regulation that at its most draconian forces you to delete every bit of a customer’s data if that capability is already part of your business model because it’s good business practice? The ability to comply with GDPR is really just a signal that a business has a clean, quality, 360-degree view of its customers—the baseline for understanding them, marketing to them, and using sophisticated Artificial intelligence and machine learning tools to achieve rational business ends that involve them, rather than just toying with their data because they can.

Human data for everyone

“Human data” isn’t just about customers but people—employees, marketers, and suppliers. Behind every application and web browser is a person interacting directly or implicitly with another person, each of whom wants a reasonable balance of security and access over their data. Above all, human data is about respecting that data has become so important to people’s livelihood—their credit scores just as much their personalities—that it shouldn’t be treated differently than they would be treated.

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