On Feb 17, 2012, I had the pleasure of participating in SMG’s Ignite-style Social Media Week Toronto Event.  The Ignite presentation format itself was a fun challenge, although what was most memorable for me were the conversations that took place after the six presentations.

My session focused primarily on privacy concerns and the future of social data. Based on the dialog after the event, it become clear that this topic was very much top of mind for many of the attendees. Interestingly, there were related articles published in the New York Times the weekend before SMW 2012 on Big Data and a second the following weekend highlighting Target’s use of personal information . These along with the recent changes to the Google Privacy settings likely provided much fuel for discussion. What follows are three of my favourite discussion points during this post-presentation dialog.

Volunteered Data & The Value Exchange

It is my belief that the privacy debate is an extremely complex issue and it will take some time to settle. That said, public option regarding ‘volunteered data’, or willing contributed information (Twitter posts, Facebook comments, etc.), is relatively straightforward. It is generally understood that in situations where there is a clear value exchange of a service for data or personal information, this is part of the social contract of using digital tools. In other words, in exchange for the use of a free service like Facebook or Google there are terms that outline privacy and ownership considerations. It is also understood that the value of this information to companies like Facebook or Google is that it provides valuable user intelligence that can be leveraged as part of their advertising offering.

Observed Data & Consumer Profiling

In comparison, the world of ‘observed data’, or the breadcrumbs of information we leave behind as we conduct our day-to-day digital lives, is an entirely different story. In many ways, this is the new Wild West of data with very few rules and many trailblazers. For example, corporations that are developing innovative techniques in data analysis are seeing huge benefits. That said, as public awareness increases these innovative practices are put into question.

A perfect example of this is found in the recent New York Times article on Target . Many readers were alarmed by the accuracy of Target’s customer profiling via data refinement. The fact that the company could anticipate major life milestones (like upcoming pregnancy) based on changes in buying habits (increase of body lotion consumption and a switch to unscented) is too much ‘Big Brother’ for some. However, for corporations and marketers alike, the ability to predict these milestones creates an attractive opportunity to generate consumer brand loyalty by marketing to an impressionable consumer at a time when they’re experiencing major change of habits.

Data As An Owned Asset Versus The Concept of Open Data

As we look to the future, arguments regarding data ownership run the gamut. However, most agree that data has become its own asset class that will continue to increase in value in the years to come. There are some that feel all personal data is the property of the individual and, as such, in the future we will be able to decide how this information is used.  Whereas, in contrast, many feel that our ‘digital exhaust’ is simply open information that is legitimately free game for those that have the means to refine it.

Looking to the Future

We live in a day and age where sharing personal information is part and parcel with how we conduct our digital lives. This exchange is so intertwined with our digital existence that for younger generations it is becoming an afterthought.

The decisions that are made now regarding ownership and use of personal data will lay the groundwork for digital information platforms. And here’s a reality check: Gone are the days for fretting over whether or not information is collected. The focus now needs to be on how personal information can be used and ultimately who dictates the terms.

If you missed the SMG Social Media Week event you can see all of the presentations here. My presentation on Big Data and social good can be found below: