Failure to replicate
Big Data: Part 1

ESOMAR Congress 2015: All behavior all the time

OK, so that’s a bit of an exaggeration and at a conference with as many concurrent sessions as we have here in Dublin there is a strong element of self-selection. Nonetheless, I’m coming away from these three days with an even stronger sense than I had coming in that the future of research is about behavior, passive data collection and the somewhat misnomered big data (more on that some other time). Over the years the industry has worked terms like “paradigm shift” and “disruption” to death, so much so that the terms have lost all meaning. But this strikes me as the real deal.

All of which is not to say that there is not an awful lot of work to do and concerns to be addressed. The papers presented here are the vanguard, mostly case studies to show that a focus on behavior can work. But there is a lot of research and experimentation to be done in building out an infrastructure of method and practice that lays out how to do this work well. More often than not the theoretical underpinnings are not as solid (or at least well expressed) as they need to be. Will we do the serious work to understand the science, or will it be like so many imagined disruptions before it, just pop science. As with surveys, cognitive psychology would seem to be key, but the foundation of hundreds if not thousands of experiments that gradually built the survey research cannon of best practices simply is not there. More than ever before the mood of MR is just do it. It has always seemed to me that the history of innovation in the research industry has been for MR to be the first mover and for the academics to come in a clean it up. We are finally seeing that with online and with mobile. Here’s hoping the academics catch the behavioral data train more quickly.

As exciting as some of this might be, there are some unsettling aspects to it. Privacy is obviously at the top of the list and there is a creep factor in some of what might be possible. I’m not sure I want my purchase decisions manipulated by “hidden forces” set up by some smartass marketer. I’ve got my own hidden forces, thank you. For years now we have struggled with the word “respondent.” Is “data subject” next?

The goal of market, opinion, and social research has always been to understand people better, learn what makes humans tick. Exposing people to 30 minute surveys seems pretty tame if the next phase is to treat them like rats in a Skinner box. Let's keep exploring but stay true to our basic values.