Independent Thinking Blog

The Future is Data Rich and Contextual

At a conference recently, a speaker asked the audience for the most important factor in developing a data app.

My response: Context.

It was thus with great interest that I dove into Age of Context. Shel Israel and Robert Scoble‘s new book looks at the impact of different technological forces (mobile, social, big data, location, and sensors) on how we interact with the world and how companies interact with us.

The book often reads like a Scoble blog post. Pick a cool app, tell me what it does. The point though is that these technologies are cool—not in themselves, but in the ways they enable us to address everything from improving the fan experience at sporting events to helping paraplegics to walk again.

Here are a few examples from the book:

Improving Sales: “Shopperception installs panels containing PrimeSense 3D sensors on the ceiling directly over a retail product section. The sensors see what every shopper touches or reads, where they stop to look, what actually goes into the shopping cart, and how long each customer spends conducting any one of these actions… While they may not be video recording what any one person is doing, the sensors provide granular data on what people collectively do, giving the store a deep and wide understanding not previously attainable.” Stores get data to better understand customer behavior; customers get more relevant offers.

Tracking Your Health:Asthmapolis, an early-phase company in Wisconsin, has started taking a contextual approach to fighting asthma. Instead of just looking at what is in the air, it is looking at what’s on the ground. It is using location-based data to alter asthma sufferers’ patterns, warning them to avoid certain areas… Sensors, data, and mobile technologies are involved. The way it works is that a little cap-like device containing a GPS sensor snaps on to the top of the inhaling devices that asthmatics carry.”

Solving Global Problems: “Among IBM’s assets is that it understands data and uses it to devise anticipatory systems that predict unforeseen events. IBM has taken that and is applying it to its Smarter Planet initiative, addressing the complex global issues of health, banking, and cities… [In San Francisco, for example,] IBM’s use of data and embedded sensors has reduced pollution emanating from the city’s thousand miles of sewer lines.”

Context matters. The age of context, however, lies down the road.

There’s no question that these new technologies and new applications (and better data crunching) are enabling richer, more contextual experiences. But my one quibble with Israel and Scoble’s book is that it’s more episodic than unified whole. The reason, I suspect, is that while we’re getting better at adding in context, we’re a long ways off from the age of context. That said, Age of Context offers an intriguing look at the possibilities.

*Disclosure: I received a preview PDF of Age of Context in exchange for agreeing to review it–but without any restrictions on what I might say.

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