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Behavioral economics

Customer data: You are who you follow

Are we the decisions we make? Are our decisions our own?

The first event in a new Data Science Insights series hosted by Imperial College’s Data Science Institute in partnership with Thomson Reuters, examined how data can be used to lead your choices, and how this could be a good thing. Make sure to check out the full video and highlights at the bottom of the post.

Speaking on Thursday 11 December were Felicity Algate from the UK’s Behavioural Insights Team, which was the world’s first government institution dedicated to the application of behavioural sciences, and Edwina Dunn, co-founder of dunnhumby, the UK-based customer science company. Our speakers shared with us where data science has come from, and where it is going.

Location data: You are where you live

Descriptive map of London Poverty: Colour Key: 1889
Color key for the original Descriptive map of London Poverty. © Museum of London

In the late 19th century, Charles Booth put London’s poverty on a map. He produced a series of maps over a 12-year period, color-coded for social class. His method of gathering data was simple: literally visiting every street in London.

Booth is the grandfather of location data, which is still a powerful resource today in allowing researchers to explore the basic idea “you are where you live”.

Booth’s work was the inspiration for our speaker Edwina Dunn’s career. However, Dunn’s greatest success came from directing her focus away from where bodies were sleeping and towards what mouths were eating.

Apps and loyalty data: You are what you eat

Dunnhumby was the company behind the explosive success of the supermarket loyalty scheme Tesco Clubcard in the 1990s.

“We could tell a lot from your shopping basket. Whether you cooked, whether you had children, even when your children came and went from university,” Dunn told the Data Science Insights audience.

“We could even tell when people weren’t buying enough calories to only be shopping at Tesco, and then we could target marketing accordingly to those also buying from competitors.”

When the loyalty scheme launched in 1994, millions signed up and Tesco leapt forward to become the UK’s biggest supermarket chain. Customers signed up because, in exchange for sharing purchasing data, they received offers tailed to their needs.

Dunn explained to the audience that many customers are perfectly happy for their data to be used if the results will benefit them.

“We all download free apps and, because we know we’re getting something for nothing, we don’t mind companies taking our data.”

Social media and digital identity: You are who you follow

Social media is the data of now. Our public information on Facebook or Twitter gives customer scientists and behavioural researchers information about what people are passionate about.

When asked about the concerns people might have when their digital and social footprint is so clearly being dusted for data, Dunn explained:

“I think relevancy is the most important word in our business life and lexicon. If customers can see why information is relevant to businesses they don’t mind as much. It’s when we’re having our footprint or our fingerprint taken and we can’t see the value of what is being mined, that’s when people are uncomfortable.”

Felicity Algate shared her experiences of the public’s double-nature on data sharing:

“We often want it both ways. We see in the Behavioural Insights Team that on the one hand, people would love the information they give to one government department to be shared when it means fewer phone calls for them. On the other hand, they sometimes do not take up help schemes because they are worried that shared data from these might affect the benefits they already receive.”

What next for data and commerce?

We’ve come a long way since the time when most organizations would have simply thrown their data away because the costs of computing meant they just couldn’t afford to keep it.

However, our speakers emphasized that to sell data without analyzing or overlaying different sets can also be throwing the potential locked in the raw information away. They stressed that very few businesses know what to do with data, meaning that the opportunity lies in joining the jots.

In the words of our Chair for this Data Science Insights event, Dr Nick de Leon, who is head of Service Design at London’s Royal College of Art:

“It’s not about how you can sell the data, but how you can sell the value of the data.”

Data Science Insights – Are your decisions your own?

In this inaugural Data Science Insights event, Felicity Algate from the Behavioural Insights Team and Edwina Dunn, CEO of Starcount and chair of the Your Life campaign, each share insights into how the choices you make can be influenced. This event was held at the Sir Alexander Fleming Building at Imperial’s South Kensington Campus on December 11 2014.

Learn more

Visit Innovation @ to learn more about how we are pairing smart data with human expertise and how you can get involved.

View more insights on how choices can be shaped by data in the full recording.

About the series

Data Science Insights is a series from Imperial College’s Data Science Institute, in partnership with Thomson Reuters. Through the series, guest presenters will share approaches and insights from data science in their organizations and how it makes an impact across the different markets that Thomson Reuters operates in. The events vary depending on topic, ranging from guest presentations, to interviews and panel discussions.

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