In their later years, my grandparents came to love casinos. Almost every evening, they'd head down the highway and drop a couple hundred dollars on biIn their later years, my grandparents came to love casinos. Almost every evening, they'd head down the highway and drop a couple hundred dollars on bingo packs and video poker. Their favorite casino, hands down, was Harrah's. In addition to the chance to strike it rich (spoiler: they didn't), they could swipe their loyalty cards in order to earn points, free food, hotel stays, and various other pieces of swag. Even on the days when they didn't have any money to spend, they would go anyway, just to check in with their cards in the hope they'd win something. It was kind of like an ancient version of FourSquare.
My grandparents unknowingly contributed to the building of Harrah's biggest asset. With every card swipe, the casino giant got another data point that they could track. With every discounted buffet purchase (swipe), slot machine win (swipe), and angry cash out (swipe), Harrah's' team of 700 data analysts was able to build a profile of my grandparents (and people like them) that helped them deploy just the right incentives to keep them coming back. For my grandparents, it was as easy as a ten dollar credit or a travel coffee mug, but, for others, it might have been a small payout every ten spins of the slot machine.
This is what we talk about when we talk about big data: a massive collection of cross-referenced data points involving a massive number of people. When analyzed and interpreted properly, this data can do amazing things. We see it all the time with services like Google. It can get kind of scary amazing.
What Townsend explores in this book is the role that big data will play in the shaping of public spaces. Private companies have had a successful track record in putting this data to good use, but can citizen groups? Can government?
It's an interesting question. Government is nowhere near as organized or driven as private sector companies. The relative smoothness with which our society moves may make it seem like government is a well-oiled machine, but the truth of the matter is that a lot of the good things are privatized and subsidized, and most of the rest is out-dated. Government moves slow, which is why Townsend thinks the true power lies in the hands of citizen groups.
Open source, he says, is the key. Governments need to provide their big data to their citizens so that the people can make the innovations happen. It's clumsy and doesn't have all that great a track record yet, but it's the key to human-centric urban design. The role of governments will be to adopt and support the best of these grassroots projects and giving them a stage for wider adoption. This will be the solution to energy problems and traffic congestion.
But governments, currently, are mostly doing it wrong. It's cheaper, faster, and more efficient to hire the work out to a company. But once that happens, they're locked in. They become Cisco or Microsoft-based governments. They no longer have control of their data, because they've locked it into a proprietary toolset.
Townsend, I think, brings the best argument for open source that I have ever heard. I spend a lot of time on open source projects- I use them often (and often with great frustration). They're often pet projects with a lot of promise and a lot of bugs. But they offer us a really compelling look at the future- a place where we own our data. Where we can create new tools to shape our futures if the old ones aren't doing it properly. If we become and remain faithful to this concept, it will change the market demand, and even for-profit companies will need to begin working in the open source model.
I loved the ideas in this book. It had my brain swimming. It should have been a third of its length, though. Townsend spends a fair amount of time on superfluous tangential discussions that take the impact away from his core ideas. I also didn't care about his own experiences in early app development- it felt like a very forced way to insert his own name into the history of big data. As a historian, though, he has the potential to make a significant impact....more