Using the data you generate

I stumbled across an excellent article by Zachary Seward titled, "Everything the Internet Knows About Me (Because I Asked It To)". It's an great example of how much data can be collected about your every day activities.

While Zach gives some very interesting insights on what that data means to him, my immediate thoughts flew to, "what could an application do with this information?"

Using The Data:

Lately, I've been working on a presentation predicting the "rise of participative software"; software that actively participates in your life rather than standing idle waiting for instruction. As Zach hinted, data collection is prolific and the data ubiquitous.

Software is already capable of using swathes of data to actively push targeted advertisements your way, so why can't it use its power for good and make suggestions to save you time or improve your life? Key to this concept is the idea that data-mining logs of your personal habits and activities can yield vastly useful useful information.

The Alarm Clock:

My go-to example of this kind of software is the humble alarm clock.

A stock (read: boring) alarm clock will sound an alarm wake you up at a certain time the next day. Extensions have included multiple alarms, repeating alarms, and technological marvels (like WakeMate and Sleep Cycle) that try to wake you up at the best possible time. Ultimately, they're all just trying to wake you up before a certain time.

So what can all this public and personal data do for the alarm clock? It's worth noting before I start that I use the alarm on my smartphone because it's always on the bedside table at night. An alarm clock running on a device like this opens up a world of possibilities.

Let's say my standard alarm is set to 7:30am on weekdays. That's great most of the time, but there are a lot of exceptions to the rule. On public holidays I want to sleep in and if I have early meetings I need to wake up earlier. This is easy enough to do; the data is available. Public holidays are known well in advance, and my work calendar is already synced to my phone so that information is available as well.

Let's take it a step further. My phone has GPS and knows about the wireless networks at my office and at home. In short, because I'm all but physically attached to my phone, it has the ability to track my movements.

If I leave work at 11pm on one particularly gruelling day, that data could feed back into the alarm clock. Wouldn't it be nice if, when I finally went to bed that night, my phone asked me whether I wanted a sleep in the next day and adjusted the alarm accordingly?

Let's take it even further, shall we? At 6:30am one Tuesday morning, my phone notices I have a 9am meeting at work. The phone turns on GPS or Wifi to check I'm at home, maps a driving route to my office (using Google or Bing Maps), and checks traffic data to see whether there are any accidents on the way. If there are, it might decide to wake me up early so I'll make it to work on time.

Active Participation

I'm sure you can see where I'm going with this. The key point I'm trying to make is that I shouldn't have to explicitly tell the software to behave this way for me. It knows my habits, has access to relevant data, and can therefore make predictions on what I want. It's really just about combining and interpreting the huge amounts of data available and using it to actively participate in my life.

GPS data combined with bank account details and ATM localities could allow my phone to tell me I've been paid as I walk past an ATM.

Foursquare checkins combined with restaurant reviews and data from a coupon site could suggest places to go for dinner on the days I usually go out.

The possibilities really are endless.

The Skynet barrier

Whenever I talk about ideas like this with my fiancée, she blanches. She sees things very differently to me in this respect, almost certainly because she's not an IT nerd. She doesn't want her technology covertly collecting information on her or telling her what to do, and that's probably the biggest barrier to this type of technology.

Just because you can do something doesn't mean people will be comfortable with it. As Arthur C. Clarke famously wrote, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic", and while not everyone is scared of magic, it's reasonable to be scared of the magician when it involves your private information.

Conclusion

With any product, it's really up to the market whether applications like this will be deemed acceptable and ultimately popular. I may see opportunity while others see Skynet, but the opinion that matters is the one belonging to the consumers with the money.

If you want to share your opinion, or if you would like me to share all my ideas on this topic, let me know on Twitter, or by email.

Damian Brady

I'm an Australian developer, speaker, and author specialising in DevOps, developer process, and software architecture. I love Octopus Deploy, Visual Studio Team Services, and reducing process waste.