Association Executive Book Shelf

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Book reviews by Raphael Badagliacca

The Human Face of Big DataThe Human Face of Big Data
By Rick Smolan and Jennifer Erwitt (Published by Against All Odds Productions, 2012).

It makes sense that a book about big data would be a big book. "The Human Face of Big Data" is not the usual coffee-table size book, big on graphics and short on substance. On the contrary, this 11x14 volume is encyclopedic on the subject. It gets across with indelible examples that big data not only is more data than could be imagined at any time prior to recent years, but that its compilation and analysis happens in such rapid fashion that patterns previously hidden are revealed. In other words, not only is there more of it, but its patterns of meaning has been unlocked. This means that problems that have seemed insoluble may now have solutions, and actions can be made to happen remotely and automatically in ways that were previously the province of science fiction.

The prime examples are in medical data and genetic research, but big data has impact in virtually every field. To leaders of associations, it is worthwhile to understand its role in marketing outreach, for what it reveals about the online behavior of members and donors, including prospects you are trying to attract. Your association has a focus. You strengthen the fulfillment of your mandate to remain the primary source of information for your constituents by understanding how big data is changing their daily lives, professional and personal, and transforming the pursuits of their companies.

I’m amused by telling observations like this – that what we are doing with social media apps like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and others – is giving ourselves electronic tattoos. Of course, as with all advances, there is a dark side to all of this, with consequences for personal privacy.

Consider these facts:

  1. From the beginning of recorded time until 2003 we created 5 exabytes of data. In 2011, the same amount of data was created every two days. Since 2013, that time has shrunk to 10 minutes.
  2. Data is an economic asset. “Data is the new oil” is a now famous formulation.
  3. 60% of all humans text. In 2010, 193,000 texts were sent every second.
  4. There are more bits of data than stars in the universe.
  5. There are 133 million blogs on the web.
  6. 80% of humans have a mobile phone.
  7. In one second of a baseball game, more data is now captured than in entire seasons only a few years ago.

Esther Dyson’s insightful essay in this book, “The Pulse of the Planet” tracks the stages in the rise of big data and the transformation of our lives: 1) how the internet and web connects us; 2) how the proliferation of devices spreads intelligence; and 3) how analog sensory devices have been newly empowered.

In an essay called “A Demographic of One” whose title itself reminds us that today we can now know the people we are trying to impress, instruct, and engage as individuals through the management of data is an important fact for leaders of non-profit organizations.

As Michael Malone write, "Big data is truly revolutionary because it fundamentally changes mankind's relationship with information."

This is worth noting, understanding and making it the basis of action.

Streaming, Sharing, Stealing: Big Data and the Future of EntertainmenStreaming, Sharing, Stealing: Big Data and the Future of Entertainment
by Michael D. Smith and Rahul Telang (Published by Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2016).

I did not have to read very far into this book to find its relevance for any organization involved in communicating with a purpose, which is all organizations, especially those whose primary product is information, for example, organizations like yours. The goal of an association or fundraising organization, built around a single focus, is to keep its position as the main source of information for that focus -- the industry or pursuit it serves. To do so, it's not enough to have more and better content than anyone else. You must also make it accessible in contemporary formats.

Enter the story of Netflix's risky decision to move from distributor of content in a physical format to owner/streamer of content.

The “pilot episode” has long been the standard way that television networks try to assess new shows. The cost for your typical pilot is around $5 million. Its role is to get across in a 30- or 60-minute time frame (minus commercial time) the story arc, plot, and characters of the intended broadcast series.

When Netflix announced that it was entering the content business with a $100 million investment in House of Cards, and making the entire first season’s episodes available all at once, media experts and bankers expressed grave doubts.

In an observation made by Kevin Spacey, House of Cards is a long, multi-layered, complex story whose essence could not be expressed in a pilot. In other words, the content is rich and engaging like yours should be, more than can be captured in a single interaction. When Netflix’s Chief Content Officer came to the table to do his analysis, he did not bring a history of what has traditionally worked in terms of plot and character in television, he brought actual customer data. Netflix knew how many of its customers had rented DVDs by the intended director of the series, how many had rented DVDs with the actors who portrayed the main characters, how many had rented movies with similar subject matter. What seemed like a risky decision was actually grounded in the reality of meaningful data.

Netflix had a historical database with the preferences of its customers, and made a data-driven decision, then took it one step further, by creating different trailers for the same show for customers who fell into different preference groups. In short, Netflix knew its customers individually and drew upon that source to create different, suitable content.

This is what you need to do with your members and donors.