My colleague Mark Hansen used to assign his class to keep a data diary. I decided to try it, to see what happened. I asked my Intro Stats class (about 180 students) to choose a day in the upcoming week, and during the day, keep track of every event that left a ‘data trail.’ (We had talked a bit in class about what that meant, and about what devices were storing data.) They were asked to write a paragraph summarizing the data trail, and to imagine what could be gleaned should someone have access to all of their data.
The results were interesting. The vast majority “got” it. The very few who didn’t either kept too detailed a log (example: “11:01: text message, 11:02: text, 11:03: googled”, etc) or simply wrote down their day’s activities and said something vague like, “had someone been there with a camera, they would have seen me do these things.”
But those were very few (maybe 2 or 3). The rest were quite thoughtful. The sort of events included purchases (gas, concert tickets, books), meal-card swipes, notes of CCTV locations, social events (texts, phone calls), virtual life (facebook postings, google searches), and classroom activities (clickers, enrollments). Many of the students were to my reckoning, sophisticated, about the sort of portrait that could be painted. They pointed out that with just one day’s data, someone could have a pretty clear idea of their social structure. And by pooling the classes data or the campus’s data, a very clear idea of where students were moving and, based on entertainment purchases, where they planned to be in the future. They noted that gas purchase records could be used to infer whether they lived on campus or off campus and even, roughly, how far off.
Here’s my question for you: what’s the next step? Where do we go from here to build on this lesson? And to what purpose?