Sunday, December 30, 2012

Information Filtering

The corporate computer world is currently all over "Big Data". Companies are collecting all kinds of data. Now they just have to have means of analyzing it in order to help their corporate mission. You can already see how some things are done now. Safeway has a "just for you" programs that offers customized discounts based on an individual's shopping habits. Staples adjusts online prices based on somebody's location and proximity to Staples and competitors' stores. And those are only the cases that get big Wall Street Journal feature articles. There are many other cases that fall under the radar.

There are also many companies struggling to figure out what to do with the data.

But what about individual people?

A few decades ago, the radio pretty much told you what you would listen to. The radio stations played the Beatles. Everyone listened to the Beatles. That was that. If you happened to live close to an indie radio station or indie record store you may get something different. Or you could really scour mail-order catalogs or friends with demo tapes. It took significant effort to find anything unique.

Today, you can turn on Spotify, Amazon, Pandora, or even iTunes and find millions of songs. Finding many obscure artists is not the problem. Filtering through the mass of obscurity is now the challenge. You almost long for the DJs to tell you what to buy.

Specialization and customization have also made things worse. If you wanted to buy a home computer in the 80s, you chose between the Commodore 64, Apple II, or Atari 800. You might have to hunt around town to try to find the best prices, but you knew what each would do. Now you can choose among windows, macs, linux, ChromeOS, Android and iOS. And then there are near infinite variations of each model. Different retailers may have different model numbers (with retailers often trying to have custom version to prevent people from "showrooming" in their store.) The information is now abundantly available. Filtering it has become a problem. (Just try to say "give me the cheapest computer with a Blue Ray, 4 GB memory and 1TB hard drive - and that doesn't even go in to processor, OS, cores, or whatnot.)

Where does this lead us? Will businesses begin to customize their consumer offerings so well that there is an individual model number for each consumer? So much for shopping around.

Even outside of retail, the information glut has a way of overtaking us. Now you can flip on the internet and catch the outcome of every college football game as it happens. There is no need to worry about which games are televised, or what scores the TV announcer feels are interesting. You get everything. You also get the polls as soon as they are available. No more waiting for the Monday paper to see how your team is doing. But, with this media dominated football, you also start to loose the gameday experience. Saturday afternoon games are becoming endangered. Local teams? Why bother. You can just get everything on TV. But, you can now trash talk with fans all over the nation right as the game is happening. You just have to find the right message board - and there are hundreds. Now just try to filter through all these to find things you really are interesting in. Maybe comment #653 on board #203. Or maybe his Twitter feed is the best place to look. Before, it might be difficult to find somebody interested in an out of town game. Now, its difficult to filter through all the garbage to find the intelligent conversation.

How do you deal with the information overload? How do you focus on what data is really needed, and filter out the garbage? In its infancy Google did a great job of showing the most relevant results. Today, the spammers and SEO-gurus are catching up and sometimes winning. A simple query may return page upon page of "junk" results. Is it time for the "new" search engine to help us finally filter through the glut?

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