6 Mar 2013

Introducing the Channel 4 News data baby

Meet Rebecca Taylor, 27, the Channel 4 News data baby who will help us explore how everything from the news you read to the prices you pay, are a result of your online searches and clicks.

Almost every internet user has had a similar experience: You browse online for a product. Two days later, you visit a completely different website, and an advert pops up for the product you were searching for.

Someone, somewhere is taking your information, processing it, and using it to control your experience. Who and how?

The traditional answer has been that online advertising firms like Doubleclick are using cookies to track your browsing habits and target relevant advertising to you.

However, that explanation is increasingly outdated. Websites have developed new ways to identify their users, and behavioural marketing firms are coming with new ways to use that data.

Will political campaigns target you as a voter differently according to data that’s been gathered? Jaron Lanier

Google now uses an estimated 57 signals to personalise your search results, including your location, what computer you’re using or how often you search, says Eli Pariser, author of The Filter Bubble – even when you’re not logged in.

And with the rapid growth in mobile computing, even more of our information is up for grabs – including location data.

Digital footprint

It is near impossible for average internet users to keep enough of a track of their browsing behaviour to really know what’s going on behind the scenes. Especially because of the vast amount of information now available. As Google’s Eric Schmidt put it, “every two days we create as much information as we did from the dawn of civilisation until 2003”.

So Channel 4 News has launched an experimental online identity, whose behaviour we can forensically analyse. This is the Data Baby project.

Our “baby” is called Rebecca Taylor, (one of most common names for women her age). She’s 27, lives in London, likes photography, travel, music, and uses all the popular social networks.

In reality, Rebecca is a laptop which Channel 4 News will control, guided by the personality type we’ve mapped out. Over the next month we will build up an online footprint for Rebecca, to make her as “real” an identity as possible. Then we will track where her data is going – and who is using it for what.

Periodically, the “Rebecca” laptop will go to a tech consultancy where we will analyse what information it has sent and received, so we can start building up a picture of where the data baby’s information is going, who is processing it, and how that is affecting her online experience.

Eventually, Rebecca will “go mobile”, so we can see how geo-location data feeds into her growing online life.

Data Baby - watch her grow

Speaking to Channel 4 News “digital prophet” Jaron Lanier said: “Would your imaginary person see different news items, different search results, different prices, different recommendations for who to date, different music streams, than exactly the same person if some items were different but irrelevant to any of those items?”

In the long term, the way we search online and the data we hand over every time we log on could also contribute to the way we run our lives on a much deeper level, Lanier says.

“In five years or longer, this person’s life would be affected by the data that’s collected,” he told Channel 4 News. “Some of the examples are: how much credit will cost, will this have any effect on employment prospects, education?

“Will political campaigns target you as a voter differently according to data that’s been gathered?”

Data world
> Google receives over two million search queries every minute,
> Yahoo! generates 45,000 unique versions of its homepage every five minutes,
> Every week you spend around 11 hours reading and answering emails,
> Data centres consume up to 1.5 per cent of all the electricity in the world,

There are a lot of unknowns here: how real should we make Rebecca? When she interacts online should she be honest about herself, or pretend to be human? Should we create a job and employer for her? How far can we trace her data into the internet?

We are learning as we go, and we’d like your help: if you have an experience online you find interesting or even unsettling (you visit a website, then start receiving suspicious email, for example), tell us about it. We’ll try and replicate it using Rebecca and get some answers for you.

Now it’s your job to find Rebecca online and make friends with her; the more real we can make her, the better.

Follow the project on Twitter via @datababyC4 or on Facebook.