Ethical Issues and Considerations Arising in Big Data Research

Image from Pixabay

Image from Pixabay

In 48 of 50 states in the US, new attorneys are required to pass a 60 multiple-choice question exam on legal ethics in addition to passing their state’s bar exam. This is known as the Multistate Professional Responsibility Examination (MPRE). I well recall taking this test myself.

The subject matter of this test is the professional ethical roles and responsibilities a lawyer must abide by as an advocate and counselor to clients, courts and the legal profession. It is founded upon a series of ethical considerations and disciplinary rules that are strictly enforced by the bars of each state. Violations can potentially lead to a series of professional sanctions and, in severe cases depending upon the facts, disbarment from practice for a term of years or even permanently.

In other professions including, among others, medicine and accounting, similar codes of ethics exist and are expected to be scrupulously followed. They are defined efforts to ensure honesty, quality, transparency and integrity in their industries’ dealings with the public, and to address certain defined breaches. Many professional trade organizations also have formal codes of ethics but often do not have much, if any, sanction authority.

Should some comparable forms of guidelines and boards likewise be put into place to oversee the work of big data researchers? This was the subject of a very compelling article posted on Wired.com on May 20, 2016, entitled Scientists Are Just as Confused About the Ethics of Big-Data Research as You by Sharon Zhang. I highly recommend reading it in its entirety. I will summarize, annotate and add some further context to this, as well as pose a few questions of my own.

Two Recent Data Research Incidents

Last month. an independent researcher released, without permission, the profiles with very personal information of 70,000 users of the online dating site OKCupid. These users were quite angered by this. OKCupid is pursuing a legal claim to remove this data.

Earlier in 2014, researchers at Facebook manipulated items in users’ News Feeds for a study on “mood contagion“.¹ Many users were likewise upset when they found out. The journal that published this study released an “expression of concern”.

Users’ reactions over such incidents can have an effect upon subsequent “ethical boundaries”.

Nonetheless, the researchers involved in both of these cases had “never anticipated” the significant negative responses to their work. The OKCupid study was not scrutinized by any “ethical review process”, while a review board at Cornell had concluded that the Facebook study did not require a full review because the Cornell researchers only had a limited role in it.

Both of these incidents illustrate how “untested the ethics” are of these big data research. Only now are the review boards that oversee the work of these researchers starting to pay attention to emerging ethical concerns. This is in high contrast to the controls and guidelines upon medical research in clinical trials.

The Applicability of The Common Rule and Institutional Research Boards

In the US, under the The Common Rule, which governs ethics for federally funded biomedical and behavioral research where humans are involved, studies are required to undergo an ethical review.  However, such review does not apply a “unified system”, but rather, each university maintains its own institutional review board (IRB). These are composed of other (mostly medical) researchers at each university. Only a few of them “are professional ethicists“.

To a lesser extent, do they have experience in computer technology. This deficit may be affecting the protection of subjects who participate in data science research projects. In the US, there are hundreds of IRBs but they are each dealing with “research efforts in the digital age” in their own ways.

Both the Common Rule and the IRB system came into being following the revelation in the 1970s that the U.S. Public Health Service had, between 1932 and 1972, engaged in a terrible and shameful secret program that came to be known as the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment. This involved leaving African Americans living in rural Alabama with untreated syphilis in order to study the disease. As a result of this outrage, the US Department of Health and Human Services created new regulations concerning any research on human subjects they conducted. All other federal agencies likewise adopted such regulations. Currently, “any institution that gets federal funding has to set up an IRB to oversee research involving humans”.

However, many social scientists today believe these regulations are not accurate or appropriate for their types of research involving areas where the risks involved “are usually more subtle than life or death”. For example, if you are seeking volunteers to take a survey on test-taking behaviors, the IRB language requirements on physical risks does not fit the needs of the participants in such a study.

Social scientist organizations have expressed their concern about this situation. As a result, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) has recommended:

  • Adding more social scientists to IRBs, or
  • Creating new and separate review boards to assess social science research

In 2013, AAUP issued a report entitled Regulation of Research on Human Subjects: Academic Freedom and the Institutional Review Board, recommending that the researchers themselves should decide if “their minimal risk work needs IRB approval or not”. In turn, this would make more time available to IRBs for “biomedical research with life-or-death stakes”.

This does not, however, imply that all social science research, including big data studies, are entirely risk-free.

Ethical Issues and Risk Analyses When Data Sources Are Comingled

Dr. Elizabeth A. Buchanan who works as an ethicist at the University of Wisconsin-Stout, believes that the Internet is now entering its “third phase” where researchers can, for example, purchase several years’ worth of Twitter data and then integrate it “with other publicly available data”.² This mixture results in issues involving “ethics and privacy”.

Recently, while serving on an IRB, she took part in evaluated a project proposal involving merging mentions of a drug by its street name appearing on social media with public crime data. As a result, people involved in crimes could potentially become identified. The IRB still gave its approval. According to Dr. Buchanan, the social value of this undertaking must be weighed against its risk. As well, the risk should be minimized by removing any possible “idenifiers” in any public release of this information.

As technology continues to advance, such risk evaluation can become more challenging. For instance, in 2013, MIT researchers found out that they were able to match up “publicly available DNA sequences” by using data about the participants that the “original researchers” had uploaded online.³ Consequently, in such cases, Dr. Buchanan believes it is crucial for IRBs “to have either a data scientist, computer scientist or IT security individual” involved.

Likewise, other types of research organizations such as, among others, open science repositories, could perhaps “pick up the slack” and handle more of these ethical questions. According to Michelle Meyer, a bioethicist at Mount Sinai, oversight must be assumed by someone but the best means is not likely to be an IRB because they do not have the necessary “expertise in de-identification and re-identification techniques”.

Different Perspectives on Big Data Research

A technology researcher at the University of Maryland 4 named Dr. Katie Shilton recently conducted interviews of “20 online data researchers”. She discovered “significant disagreement” among them on matters such as the “ethics of ignoring Terms of Service and obtaining informed consent“. The group also reported that the ethical review boards they dealt with never questioned the ethics of the researchers, while peer reviewers and their professional colleagues had done so.

Professional groups such as the Association of Internet Researchers (AOIR) and the Center for Applied Internet Data Analysis (CAIDA) have created and posted their own guidelines:

However, IRBs who “actually have power” are only now “catching up”.

Beyond universities, tech companies such as Microsoft have begun to establish in-house “ethical review processes”. As well, in December 2015, the Future of Privacy Forum held a gathering called Beyond IRBs to evaluate “processes for ethical review outside of federally funded research”.

In conclusion., companies continually “experiment on us” with data studies. Just to name to name two, among numerous others, they focus on A/B testing 5 of news headings and supermarket checkout lines. As they hire increasing numbers of data scientists from universities’ Ph.D. programs, these schools are sensing an opportunity to close the gap in terms of using “data to contribute to public knowledge”.

My Questions

  • Would the companies, universities and professional organizations who issue and administer ethical guidelines for big data studies be taken more seriously if they had the power to assess and issue public notices for violations? How could this be made binding and what sort of appeals processes might be necessary?
  • At what point should the legal system become involved? When do these matters begin to involve civil and/or criminal investigations and allegations? How would big data research experts be certified for hearings and trials?
  • Should teaching ethics become a mandatory part of curriculum in data science programs at universities? If so, should the instructors only be selected from the technology industry or would it be helpful to invite them from other industries?
  • How should researchers and their employers ideally handle unintended security and privacy breaches as a result of their work? Should they make timely disclosures and treat all inquiries with a high level of transparency?
  • Should researchers experiment with open source methods online to conduct certain IRB functions for more immediate feedback?

 


1.  For a detailed report on this story, see Facebook Tinkers With Users’ Emotions in News Feed Experiment, Stirring Outcry, by Vindu Goel, in the June 29, 2014 edition of The New York Times.

2These ten Subway Fold posts cover a variety of applications in analyzing Twitter usage data.

3.  For coverage on this story see an article published in The New York Times on January 17, 2013, entitled Web Hunt for DNA Sequences Leaves Privacy Compromised, by Gina Kolata.

4.  For another highly interesting but unrelated research initiative at the University of Maryland, see the December 27, 2015 Subway Fold post entitled Virtual Reality Universe-ity: The Immersive “Augmentarium” Lab at the U. of Maryland.

5.  For a detailed report on this methodology, see the September 30, 2015 Subway Fold post entitled Google’s A/B Testing Method is Being Applied to Improve Government Operations.

Digital Smarts Everywhere: The Emergence of Ambient Intelligence

Image from Pixabay

Image from Pixabay

The Troggs were a legendary rock and roll band who were part of the British Invasion in the late 1960’s. They have always been best known for their iconic rocker Wild Thing. This was also the only Top 10 hit that ever had an ocarina solo. How cool is that! The band went on to have two other major hits, With a Girl Like You and Love is All Around.¹

The third of the band’s classic singles can be stretched a bit to be used as a helpful metaphor to describe an emerging form pervasive “all around”-edness, this time in a more technological context. Upon reading a fascinating recent article on TechCrunch.com entitled The Next Stop on the Road to Revolution is Ambient Intelligence, by Gary Grossman, on May 7, 2016, you will find a compelling (but not too rocking) analysis about how the rapidly expanding universe of digital intelligent systems wired into our daily routines is becoming more ubiquitous, unavoidable and ambient each day.

All around indeed. Just as romance can dramatically affect our actions and perspectives, studies now likewise indicate that the relentless global spread of smarter – – and soon thereafter still smarter – – technologies is comparably affecting people’s lives at many different levels.² 

We have followed just a sampling of developments and trends in the related technologies of artificial intelligence, machine learning, expert systems and swarm intelligence in these 15 Subway Fold posts. I believe this new article, adding “ambient intelligence” to the mix, provides a timely opportunity to bring these related domains closer together in terms of their common goals, implementations and benefits. I highly recommend reading Mr. Grossman’s piece it in its entirety.

I will summarize and annotate it, add some additional context, and then pose some of my own Troggs-inspired questions.

Internet of Experiences

Digital this, that and everything is everywhere in today’s world. There is a surging confluence of connected personal and business devices, the Internet, and the Internet of Things (I0T) ³. Woven closely together on a global scale, we have essentially built “a digital intelligence network that transcends all that has gone before”. In some cases, this quantum of advanced technologies gains the “ability to sense, predict and respond to our needs”, and is becoming part of everyone’s “natural behaviors”.

A forth industrial revolution might even manifest itself in the form of machine intelligence whereby we will interact with the “always-on, interconnected world of things”. As a result, the Internet may become characterized more by experiences where users will converse with ambient intelligent systems everywhere. The supporting planks of this new paradigm include:

A prediction of what more fully realized ambient intelligence might look like using travel as an example appeared in an article entitled Gearing Up for Ambient Intelligence, by Lisa Morgan, on InformationWeek.com on March 14, 2016. Upon leaving his or her plane, the traveler will receive a welcoming message and a request to proceed to the curb to retrieve their luggage. Upon reaching curbside, a self-driving car6 will be waiting with information about the hotel booked for the stay.

Listening

Another article about ambient intelligence entitled Towards a World of Ambient Computing, by Simon Bisson, posted on ZDNet.com on February 14, 2014, is briefly quoted for the line “We will talk, and the world will answer”, to illustrate the point that current technology will be morphing into something in the future that would be nearly unrecognizable today. Grossman’s article proceeds to survey a series of commercial technologies recently brought to market as components of a fuller ambient intelligence that will “understand what we are asking” and provide responsive information.

Starting with Amazon’s Echo, this new device can, among other things:

  • Answer certain types of questions
  • Track shopping lists
  • Place orders on Amazon.com
  • Schedule a ride with Uber
  • Operate a thermostat
  • Provide transit schedules
  • Commence short workouts
  • Review recipes
  • Perform math
  • Request a plumber
  • Provide medical advice

Will it be long before we begin to see similar smart devices everywhere in homes and businesses?

Kevin Kelly, the founding Executive Editor of WIRED and a renowned futurist7, believes that in the near future, digital intelligence will become available in the form of a utility8 and, as he puts it “IQ as a service”. This is already being done by Google, Amazon, IBM and Microsoft who are providing open access to sections of their AI coding.9 He believes that success for the next round of startups will go to those who enhance and transforms something already in existence with the addition of AI. The best example of this is once again self-driving cars.

As well, in a chapter on Ambient Computing from a report by Deloitte UK entitled Tech Trends 2015, it was noted that some products were engineering ambient intelligence into their products as a means to remain competitive.

Recommending

A great deal of AI is founded upon the collection of big data from online searching, the use of apps and the IoT. This universe of information supports neural networks learn from repeated behaviors including people’s responses and interests. In turn, it provides a basis for “deep learning-derived personalized information and services” that can, in turn, derive “increasingly educated guesses with any given content”.

An alternative perspective, that “AI is simply the outsourcing of cognition by machines”, has been expressed by Jason Silva, a technologist, philosopher and video blogger on Shots of Awe. He believes that this process is the “most powerful force in the universe”, that is, of intelligence. Nonetheless, he sees this as an evolutionary process which should not be feared. (See also the December 27, 2014 Subway Fold post entitled  Three New Perspectives on Whether Artificial Intelligence Threatens or Benefits the World.)

Bots are another contemporary manifestation of ambient intelligence. These are a form of software agent, driven by algorithms, that can independently perform a range of sophisticated tasks. Two examples include:

Speaking

Optimally, bots should also be able to listen and “speak” back in return much like a 2-way phone conversation. This would also add much-needed context, more natural interactions and “help to refine understanding” to these human/machine exchanges. Such conversations would “become an intelligent and ambient part” of daily life.

An example of this development path is evident in Google Now. This service combines voice search with predictive analytics to present users with information prior to searching. It is an attempt to create an “omniscient assistant” that can reply to any request for information “including those you haven’t thought of yet”.

Recently, the company created a Bluetooth-enable prototype of lapel pin based on this technology that operates just by tapping it much like the communicators on Star Trek. (For more details, see Google Made a Secret Prototype That Works Like the Star Trek Communicator, by Victor Luckerson, on Time.com, posted on November 22, 2015.)

The configurations and specs of AI-powered devices, be it lapel pins, some form of augmented reality10 headsets or something else altogether, supporting such pervasive and ambient intelligence are not exactly clear yet. Their development and introduction will take time but remain inevitable.

Will ambient intelligence make our lives any better? It remains to be seen, but it is probably a viable means to handle some of more our ordinary daily tasks. It will likely “fade into the fabric of daily life” and be readily accessible everywhere.

Quite possibly then, the world will truly become a better place to live upon the arrival of ambient intelligence-enabled ocarina solos.

My Questions

  • Does the emergence of ambient intelligence, in fact, signal the arrival of a genuine fourth industrial revolution or is this all just a semantic tool to characterize a broader spectrum of smarter technologies?
  • How might this trend affect overall employment in terms of increasing or decreasing jobs on an industry by industry basis and/or the entire workforce? (See also this June 4, 2015 Subway Fold post entitled How Robots and Computer Algorithms Are Challenging Jobs and the Economy.)
  • How might this trend also effect non-commercial spheres such as public interest causes and political movements?
  • As ambient intelligence insinuates itself deeper into our online worlds, will this become a principal driver of new entrepreneurial opportunities for startups? Will ambient intelligence itself provide new tools for startups to launch and thrive?

 


1.   Thanks to Little Steven (@StevieVanZandt) for keeping the band’s music in occasional rotation on The Underground Garage  (#UndergroundGarage.) Also, for an appreciation of this radio show see this August 14, 2014 Subway Fold post entitled The Spirit of Rock and Roll Lives on Little Steven’s Underground Garage.

2.  For a remarkably comprehensive report on the pervasiveness of this phenomenon, see the Pew Research Center report entitled U.S. Smartphone Use in 2015, by Aaron Smith, posted on April 1, 2015.

3These 10 Subway Fold posts touch upon the IoT.

4.  The Subway Fold category Big Data and Analytics contains 50 posts cover this topic in whole or in part.

5.  The Subway Fold category Telecommunications contains 12 posts cover this topic in whole or in part.

6These 5 Subway Fold posts contain references to self-driving cars.

7.   Mr. Kelly is also the author of a forthcoming book entitled The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future, to be published on June 7, 2016 by Viking.

8.  This September 1, 2014 Subway Fold post entitled Possible Futures for Artificial Intelligence in Law Practice, in part summarized an article by Steven Levy in the September 2014 issue of WIRED entitled Siri’s Inventors Are Building a Radical New AI That Does Anything You Ask. This covered a startup called Viv Labs whose objective was to transform AI into a form of utility. Fast forward to the Disrupt NY 2016 conference going on in New York last week. On May 9, 2016, the founder of Viv, Dag Kittlaus, gave his presentation about the Viv platform. This was reported in an article posted on TechCrunch.com entitled Siri-creator Shows Off First Public Demo of Viv, ‘the Intelligent Interface for Everything’, by Romain Dillet, on May 9, 2016. The video of this 28-minute presentation is embedded in this story.

9.  For the full details on this story see a recent article entitled The Race Is On to Control Artificial Intelligence, and Tech’s Future by John Markoff and Steve Lohr, published in the March 25, 2016 edition of The New York Times.

10These 10 Subway Fold posts cover some recent trends and development in augmented reality.

Book Review of “Inventology: How We Dream Up Things That Change the World”

"Toolbox_LRG", Image by Limor

“Toolbox_LRG”, Image by Limor.

My father loved to tell this story: One of his classmates while he attended the University of Pennsylvania School of Dental Medicine was named Robert Schattner. Several years after they graduated, he went on to invent the over-the-counter sore throat lozenge and spray called Chloraseptic. This remedy has been on the market for decades ever since then.

Schattner first devised this product entirely on his own after someone who had just had some teeth pulled asked him for an antiseptic to relieve the pain. He later sold the formula and the rights to a pharmaceutical company for $4M. (Given the rate of inflation since then, this sum today would have been magnitudes more and certainly nothing to sneeze or cough at.)

Thereafter he left the practice of dentistry and went on became a successful businessman and philanthropist. He also contributed for the construction of a new building for the U Penn dental school named the Robert Schattner Center. A brief summary of his invention and contributions can be found in an article entitled Capital Buzz: Chloraseptic Inventor Offers Remedy for School, by Thomas Heath, which appeared in The Washington Post on October 23, 2011.

Mapping the Inventive Process

This is a classic example of how inventors find their ideas and inspiration. There are many other circumstances, methodologies, environments, personality traits, events, technologies and chances occurrences that can also precipitate new inventions. All of them are expertly explained and explored in Inventology: How We Dream Up Things That Change the World (Eamon Dolan/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016), by Pagan Kennedy.

The book’s five sections distinctly map out the steps in the inception and realization of things so entirely new. In doing so, the author transports the reader to center of this creative process. She deftly uses highly engaging stories, exposition and analyses to illuminate the resourcefulness and persistence of inventors leading to their breakthroughs.

Some of these tales may be familiar but they are skillfully recounted and placed into new contexts. For example, in 1968, an engineer and inventor named Douglas Englebart demonstrated a working computer for the first time with a heretofore unseen “mouse” and “graphical user interface”. (This story has gone on to become a tech legend known as The Mother of All Demos.) Others are presented who are less well-known but brought to life in highly compelling narratives. Together they provide valuable new lessons on the incubation of inventions along a wide spectrum ranging from sippy cups and water toys to mobile phones and medical devices.

The author has seemingly devised a meta-invention of her own: A refreshingly new perspective on reporting the who, what, where and why of inventors, their creations and their wills to succeed. It is a richly detailed schematic of how a creative mind can conceive and execute an original idea for a new widget and, moreover, articulate the need for it and the problem it solves.

Among other methods, Ms. Pagan covers the practice of conducting thought experiments on new concepts that may or may not lend themselves to actual experimentation in the real world. This process was made well-known by Einstein’s efforts to visualize certain problems in physics that led him to his monumental achievements. I suggest trying a thought experiment here to imagine the range of the potential areas of applications for Inventology to evaluate, in an age of countless startups and rapid scientific and technological advancements, all of the populations, challenges and companies it might benefit. Indeed, this book could readily inspire nearly anyone so inclined to pick up a pencil or soldering iron in order to launch the realization of their own proverbial better mousetrap.

Resources for Inventors

Within all of the lively content packed into this book, the struggles and legacy of a previously little known and tragically persecuted figure who learned to harness and teach the inventive process, springs right off the pages. He was a fascinating figure named  Genrich Altshuller who worked as an engineer, writer and inventor in Russia. His most important contribution to the science of invention was the development of the Theory of Inventive Problem Solving (better known by its Russian acronym of “TRIZ”). This is a comprehensive system for analyzing and implementing inventive solutions to problems of nearly every imaginable type and scale. Altschuller was willing to share this and instruct anyone who was willing to participate in studying TRIZ. It is still widely used across the modern world. The author masterfully breaks down and clearly explains its essential components.

The true gem in the entire book is how Altshuller, while imprisoned in a brutal jail in Stalinist Russia, used only his mind to devise an ingenious solution to outwit his relentless interrogators. No spoilers here, but it is an emotional triumph that captures the heart and spirit of this remarkable man. Altshuller’s life and influence in generating thousands of inventions reads as though it might make for a dramatic biopic.

Also threaded and detailed throughout the book are the current bounty of easily accessible technological tools available to inventors. First, the web holds a virtual quantum of nearly limitless data that can be researched, processed, shared, crowdsourced (on sites such as InnoCentive) and crowdfunded (on sites such as Kickstarter and Indigogo), in search of medical advances, among many other fields.¹ Second, 3D printing² can be used to quickly and inexpensively fabricate and work on enhancing prototypes of inventions. As a result of this surfeit of resources, the lengthy timelines and prohibitive cost curves that previously discouraged and delayed inventors have now been significantly reduced.

Impossibility is Only Temporary

I live in a neighborhood where it is nearly impossible to park a car. An open parking space has a half-life on the street of about .000001 nano-seconds before it is taken. This situation often reminds me of a suggestion my father also made to me when I was very young. He told me that if I really wanted to solve an important problem when I grew up, I should try to invent a car that, at the press of a button, would fold up into the size and shape of a briefcase that could be easily carried away. At the time, I thought it was impossible and immediately put the, well, brakes on this idea.

Nonetheless, as Inventology expressly and persuasively makes its own brief case, true inventors see impossibility as merely a temporary condition that, with enough imagination and determination, can be overcome. For budding Edisons and creative problem solvers everywhere, this book adds a whole new meaning to the imperative that nothing is truly impossible if you try hard enough and long enough to solve it. This indefatigable spirit permeates all 223 pages of this wonderfully enjoyable, inspirational and informative book.

Inventing your own reason to read it should be easy.


For a dozen very timely examples of inventors and their inventions further typifying much of the content and spirit of Inventology, I highly recommend reading a new feature and viewing its accompanying video posted on Quartz.com on April 26, 2016, entitled These Top Twelve Inventions Could One Day Change the World, by Mike Murphy. It covers the finalists in the 2016 European Inventors Award competition currently being run by the European Patent Office.


1.  For example, last week’s Only Human podcast on NPR included a report on how a woman with Type 1 (T1) diabetes, along with the assistance of her husband, had hacked together an artificial pancreas (called a “closed loop” system), and then shared the technical specs online with other T1s in the Seattle area. I highly recommend listening to this podcast entitled The Robot Vacuum Ate My Pancreas in its entirety.

2.  See also these six Subway Fold posts for a sampling of other trends and developments in 3D printing.

“Technographics” – A New Approach for B2B Marketers to Profile Their Customers’ Tech Systems

"Gold Rings - Sphere 1" Image by Linda K

“Gold Rings – Sphere 1” Image by Linda K

Today’s marketing and business development professionals use a wide array of big data collection and analytical tools to create and refine sophisticated profiles of market segments and their customer bases. These are deployed in order to systematically and scientifically target and sell their goods and services in steadily changing marketplaces.

These processes can include, among a multitude of other vast data sets and methodologies, demographics, web user metrics and econometrics. Businesses are always looking for a data-driven edge in highly competitive sectors and such profiling, when done correctly, can be very helpful in detecting and interpreting market trends, and consistently keeping ahead of their rivals. (The Subway Fold category of Big Data and Analytics now contains 50 posts about a variety of trends and applications in this field.)

I will briefly to this add my own long-term yet totally unscientific study of office-mess-ographics. Here I have been looking for any correlation between the relative states of organization – – or entropy – – in people’s offices and their work’s quality and output.  The results still remain inconclusive after years of study.

One of the most brilliant and accomplished people I have ever known had an office that resembled a cave deep in the earth with piles of paper resembling stalagmites all over it. Even more remarkably, he could reach into any one of those piles and pull out exactly the documents he wanted. His work space was so chaotic that there was a long-standing joke that Jimmy Hoffa’s and Judge Crater’s long-lost remains would be found whenever ever he retired and his office was cleaned out.

Speaking of office-focused analytics, an article posted on VentureBeat.com on March 5, 2016, entitled CMOs: ‘Technographics’ is the New Demographics, by Sean Zinsmeister, brought news of a most interesting new trend. I highly recommend reading this in its entirety. I will summarize and add some context to it, and then pose a few question-ographics of my own.

New Analytical Tool for B2B Marketers

Marketers are now using a new methodology call technography to analyze their customers’ “tech stack“, a term of art for the composition of their supporting systems and platforms. The objective of this approach is to deeply understand what this says about them as a company and, moreover, how can this be used in business-to-business (B2B) marketing campaigns. Thus applied, technography can identify “pain points” in products and alleviate them for current and prospective customers.

Using established consumer marketing methods, there is much to be learned and leveraged on how technology is being used by very granular segments of users bases.  For example:

By virtue of this type of technographic data, retailers can target their ads in anticipation of “which customers are most likely to shop in store, online, or via mobile”.

Next, by transposing this form of well-established marketing approach next upon B2B commerce, the objective is to carefully examine the tech stacks of current and future customers in order to gain a marketing advantage. That is, to “inform” a business’s strategy and identify potential new roles and needs to be met. These corporate tech stacks can include systems for:

  • Office productivity
  • Project management
  • Customer relationship management (CRM)
  • Marketing

Gathering and Interpreting Technographic Signals and Nuances

Technographics can provide unique and valuable insights into assessing, for example, whether a customer values scalability or ease-of-use more, and then act upon this.

As well, some of these technographic signals can be indicative of other factors not, per se, directly related to technology. This was the case at Eloqua, a financial technology concern. They noticed their marketing systems have predictive value in determining the company’s best prospects. Furthermore, they determined that companies running their software were inclined “to have a certain level of technological sophistication”, and were often large enough to have the capacity to purchase higher-end systems.

As business systems continually grow in their numbers and complexity, interpreting technographic nuances has also become more of a challenge. Hence, the application of artificial intelligence (AI) can be helpful in detecting additional useful patterns and trends. In a July 2011 TED Talk by Ted Slavin, directly on point here, entitled How Algorithms Shape Our World, he discussed how algorithms and machine learning are needed today to help make sense out of the massive and constantly growing amounts of data. (The Subway Fold category of Smart Systems contains 15 posts covering recent development and applications involving AI and machine learning.)

Technographic Resources and Use Cases

Currently, technographic signals are readily available from various data providers including:

They parse data using such factors as “web hosting, analytics, e-commerce, advertising, or content management platforms”. Another firm called Ghostery has a Chrome browser extension illuminating the technologies upon which any company’s website is built.

The next key considerations are to “define technographic profiles and determine next-best actions” for specific potential customers. For instance, an analytics company called Looker creates “highly targeted campaigns” aimed at businesses who use Amazon Web Services (AWS). The greater the number of marketers who undertake similar pursuits, the more they raise the value of their marketing programs.

Technographics can likewise be applied for competitive leverage in the following use cases:

  • Sales reps prospecting for new leads can be supported with more focused messages for potential new customers. These are shaped by understanding their particular motivations and business challenges.
  • Locating opportunities in new markets can be achieved by assessing the tech stacks of prospective customers. Such analytics can further be used for expanding business development and product development. An example is the online training platform by Mindflash. They detected a potential “demand for a Salesforce training program”. Once it became available, they employed technographic signals to pinpoint customers to whom they could present it.
  • Enterprise wide decision-making benefits can be achieved by adding “value in areas like cultural alignment”. Familiarity with such data for current employees and job seekers can aid businesses with understanding the “technology disposition” of their workers. Thereafter, its alignment with the “customers or partners” can be pursued.  Furthermore, identifying areas where additional training might be needed can help to alleviate productivity issues resulting from “technology disconnects between employees”.

Many businesses are not yet using technographic signals to their full advantage. By increasing such initiatives, businesses can acquire a much deeper understanding of their inherent values. In turn, the resulting insights can have a significant effect on the experiences of their customers and, in turn, elevate their resulting levels of loyalty, retention and revenue, as well as the magnitude of deals done.

My Questions

  • Would professional service industries such as law, medicine and accounting, and the vendors selling within these industries, benefit from integrating technographics into their own business development and marketing efforts?
  • Could there be, now or in the future, an emerging role for dedicated technographics specialists, trainers and consultants? Alternatively, should these new analytics just be treated as another new tool to be learned and implemented by marketers in their existing roles?
  • If a company identifies some of their own employees who might benefit from additional training, how can they be incentivized to participate in it? Could gamification techniques also be applied in creating these training programs?
  • What, if any, privacy concerns might surface in using technographics on potential customer leads and/or a company’s own internal staff?

LinkNYC Rollout Brings Speedy Free WiFi and New Opportunities for Marketers to New York

Link.NYC WiFi Kiosk 5, Image by Alan Rothman

Link.NYC WiFi Kiosk 5, Image by Alan Rothman

Back in the halcyon days of yore before the advent of smartphones and WiFi, there were payphones and phone booths all over of the streets in New York. Most have disappeared, but a few scattered survivors have still managed to hang on. An article entitled And Then There Were Four: Phone Booths Saved on Upper West Side Sidewalks, by Corey Kilgannon, posted on NYTimes.com on February 10, 2016, recounts the stories of some of the last lonely public phones.

Taking their place comes a highly innovative new program called LinkNYC (also @LinkNYC and #LinkNYC). This initiative has just begun to roll out across all five boroughs with a network of what will become thousands of WiFi kiosks providing free and way fast free web access and phone calling, plus a host of other online NYC support services. The kiosks occupy the same physical spaces as the previous payphones.

The first batch of them has started to appear along Third Avenue in Manhattan. I took the photos accompanying this post of one kiosk at the corner of 14th Street and Third Avenue. While standing there, I was able to connect to the web on my phone and try out some of the LinkNYC functions. My reaction: This is very cool beans!

LinkNYC also presents some potentially great new opportunities for marketers. The launch of the program and the companies getting into it on the ground floor were covered in a terrific new article on AdWeek.com on February 15, 2015 entitled What It Means for Consumers and Brands That New York Is Becoming a ‘Smart City’, by Janet Stilson. I recommend reading it in its entirety. I will summarize and annotate it to add some additional context, and pose some of my own ad-free questions.

LinkNYC Set to Proliferate Across NYC

Link.NYC WiFi Kiosk 2, Image by Alan Rothman

Link.NYC WiFi Kiosk 2, Image by Alan Rothman

When completed, LinkNYC will give New York a highly advanced mobile network spanning the entire city. Moreover, it will help to transform it into a very well-wired “smart city“.¹ That is, an urban area comprehensively collecting, analyzing and optimizing vast quantities of data generated by a wide array of sensors and other technologies. It is a network and a host of network effects where a city learns about itself and leverages this knowledge for multiple benefits for it citizenry.²

Beyond mobile devices and advertising, smart cities can potentially facilitate many other services. The consulting firm Frost & Sullivan predicts that there will be 26 smart cities across the globe during by 2020. Currently, everyone is looking to NYC to see how the implementation of LinkNYC works out.

According to Mike Gamaroff, the head of innovation in the New York office of Kinetic Active a global media and marketing firm, LinkNYC is primarily a “utility” for New Yorkers as well as “an advertising network”. Its throughput rates are at gigabit speeds thereby making it the fastest web access available when compared to large commercial ISP’s average rates of merely 20 to 30 megabits.

Nick Cardillicchio, a strategic account manager at Civiq Smartscapes, the designer and manufacturer of the LinkNYC kiosks, said that LinkNYC is the only place where consumers can access the Net at such speeds. For the AdWeek.com article, he took the writer, Janet Stilson, on a tour of the kiosks include the one at Third Avenue and 14th Street, where one of the first ones is in place. (Coincidentally, this is the same kiosk I photographed for this post.)

There are a total of 16 currently operational for the initial testing. The WiFi web access is accessible with 150 feet of the kiosk and can range up to 400 feet. Perhaps those New Yorkers actually living within this range will soon no longer need their commercial ISPs.

Link.NYC WiFi Kiosk 4, Image by Alan Rothman

Link.NYC WiFi Kiosk 4, Image by Alan Rothman

The initial advertisers appearing in rotation on the large digital screen include Poland Spring (see the photo at the right), MillerCoors, Pager and Citibank. Eventually “smaller tablet screens” will be added to enable users to make free domestic voice or video calls. As well, they will present maps, local activities and emergency information in and about NYC. Users will also be able to charge up their mobile devices.

However, it is still too soon to assess and quantify the actual impact on such providers. According to David Krupp, CEO, North America, for Kinetic, neither Poland Spring nor MillerCoors has produced an adequate amount of data to yet analyze their respective LinkNYC ad campaigns. (Kinetic is involved in supporting marketing activities.)

Commercializing the Kiosks

The organization managing LinkNYC, the CityBridge consortium (consisting of Qualcomm, Intersection, and Civiq Smartscapes) , is not yet indicating when the new network will progress into a more “commercial stage”. However, once the network is fully implemented with the next few years, the number of kiosks might end up being somewhere between 75,000 and 10,000. That would make it the largest such network in the world.

CityBridge is also in charge of all the network’s advertising sales. These revenues will be split with the city. Under the 12-year contract now in place, this arrangement is predicted to produce $500M for NYC, with positive cash flow anticipated within 5 years. Brad Gleeson, the chief commercial officer at Civiq, said this project depends upon the degree to which LinkNYC is “embraced by Madison Avenue” and the time need for the network to reach “critical mass”.

Because of the breadth and complexity of this project, achieving this inflection point will be quite challenging according to David Etherington, the chief strategy officer at Intersection. He expressed his firm’s “dreams and aspirations” for LinkNYC, including providing advertisers with “greater strategic and creative flexibility”, offering such capabilities as:

  • Dayparting  – dividing a day’s advertising into several segments dependent on a range of factors about the intended audience, and
  • Hypertargeting – delivering advertising to very highly defined segments of an audience

Barry Frey, the president and CEO of the Digital Place-based Advertising Association, was also along for the tour of the new kiosks on Third Avenue. He was “impressed” by the capability it will offer advertisers to “co-locate their signs and fund services to the public” for such services as free WiFi and long-distance calling.

As to the brand marketers:

  • MillerCoors is using information at each kiosk location from Shazam, for the company’s “Sounds of the Street” ad campaign which presents “lists of the most-Shazammed tunes in the area”. (For more about Shazam, see the December 10, 2014 Subway Fold post entitled Is Big Data Calling and Calculating the Tune in Today’s Global Music Market?)
  • Poland Spring is now running a 5-week campaign featuring a digital ad (as seen in the third photo above). It relies upon “the brand’s popularity in New York”.

Capturing and Interpreting the Network’s Data

Link.NYC WiFi Kiosk 1, Image by Alan Rothman

Link.NYC WiFi Kiosk 1, Image by Alan Rothman

Thus far, LinkNYC has been “a little vague” about its methods for capturing the network’s data, but has said that it will maintain the privacy of all consumers’ information. One source has indicated that LinkNYC will collect, among other points “age, gender and behavioral data”. As well, the kiosks can track mobile devices within its variably 150 to 400 WiFi foot radius to ascertain the length of time a user stops by.  Third-party data is also being added to “round out the information”.³

Some industry experts’ expectations of the value and applications of this data include:

  • Helma Larkin, the CEO of Posterscope, a New York based firm specializing in “out-of- home communications (OOH)“, believes that LinkNYC is an entirely “new out-of-home medium”. This is because the data it will generate “will enhance the media itself”. The LinkNYC initiative presents an opportunity to build this network “from the ground up”. It will also create an opportunity to develop data about its own audience.
  • David Krupp of Kinetic thinks that data that will be generated will be quite meaningful insofar as producing a “more hypertargeted connection to consumers”.

Other US and International Smart City Initiatives

Currently in the US, there is nothing else yet approaching the scale of LinkNYC. Nonetheless, Kansas City is now developing a “smaller advertiser-supported  network of kiosks” with wireless support from Sprint. Other cities are also working on smart city projects. Civiq is now in discussions with about 20 of them.

Internationally, Rio de Janeiro is working on a smart city program in conjunction with the 2016 Olympics. This project is being supported by Renato Lucio de Castro, a consultant on smart city projects. (Here is a brief video of him describing this undertaking.)

A key challenge facing all smart city projects is finding officials in local governments who likewise have the enthusiasm for efforts like LinkNYC. Michael Lake, the CEO of Leading Cities, a firm that help cities with smart city projects, believes that programs such as LinkNYC will “continue to catch on” because of the additional security benefits they provide and the revenues they can generate.

My Questions

  • Should domestic and international smart cities to cooperate to share their resources, know-how and experience for each other’s mutual benefit? Might this in some small way help to promote urban growth and development on a more cooperative global scale?
  • Should LinkNYC also consider offering civic support services such as voter registration or transportation scheduling apps as well as charitable functions where pedestrians can donate to local causes?
  • Should LinkNYC add some augmented reality capabilities to enhance the data capabilities and displays of the kiosks? (See these 10 Subway Fold posts covering a range of news and trends on this technology.)

February 19, 2017 Update:  For the latest status report on LinkNYC nearly a year after this post was first uploaded, please see After Controversy, LinkNYC Finds Its Niche, by Gerald Schifman, on CrainsNewYork.com, dated February 15, 2017.


1.   While Googling “smart cities” might nearly cause the Earth to shift off its axis with its resulting 70 million hits, I suggest reading a very informative and timely feature from the December 11, 2015 edition of The Wall Street Journal entitled As World Crowds In, Cities Become Digital Laboratories, by Robert Lee Hotz.

2.   Smart Cities: Big Data, Civic Hackers, and the Quest for a New Utopia (W. W. Norton & Company, 2013), by Anthony M. Townsend, is a deep and wide book-length exploration of how big data and analytics are being deployed in large urban areas by local governments and independent citizens. I very highly recommend reading this fascinating exploration of the nearly limitless possibilities for smart cities.

3.   See, for example, How Publishers Utilize Big Data for Audience Segmentation, by Arvid Tchivzhel, posted on Datasciencecentral.com on November 17, 2015


These items just in from the Pop Culture Department: It would seem nearly impossible to film an entire movie thriller about a series of events centered around a public phone, but a movie called – – not so surprisingly – – Phone Booth managed to do this quite effectively in 2002. It stared Colin Farrell, Kiefer Sutherland and Forest Whitaker. Imho, it is still worth seeing.

Furthermore, speaking of Kiefer Sutherland, Fox announced on January 15, 2016 that it will be making 24: Legacy, a complete reboot of the 24 franchise, this time without him playing Jack Bauer. Rather, they have cast Corey Hawkins in the lead role. Hawkins can now be seen doing an excellent job playing Heath on season 6 of The Walking Dead. Watch out Grimes Gang, here comes Negan!!


The Predictive Benefits of Analyzing Employees’ Communications Networks

Image from Pixabay

Image from Pixabay

In the wake of the destruction left by the Enron scandal and subsequent bankruptcy in the early 2000s, one of the more revelatory and instructive artifacts left behind was the massive trove of approximately 1,600,000 of the company’s corporate emails. Researchers from a variety of fields have performed all manner of extensive analyses on this “corpus” of emails as it known. Of particular interest was the structure and operations of this failed company’s communications network. That is, simply stated, extracting and examining who’s who and what’s what in this failed organization.

No other database of this type, size and depth had ever been previously available for such purposes. What the researchers have learned from this and its subsequent and significant influences in many public and private sectors was the subject of a fascinating article in MIT Technology Review posted on July 2, 2013 entitled The Immortal Life of the Enron E-mails by Jessica Lander. I highly recommend reading this.

[July 18, 2017 Update:  For a new deep and wide analysis of the Enron email database, see What the Enron E-Mails Say About Us, by Nathan Heller, in the 7/24/17 edition of The New Yorker.]

I immediately recalled this piece recently while reading a column posted on the Harvard Business Review blog on February 10, 2016 entitled What Work Email Can Reveal About Performance and Potential by Chantrelle Nielsen. This analytical processes and consulting projects it describes could be of highly practical value to all manners and sizes of organizations. I also suggest reading this in its entirety. I will summarize, annotate and pose some emoji-free questions of my own.

I believe this post will also provide a logical follow-on to the February 15, 2016 Subway Fold post entitled Establishing a Persuasive Digital Footprint for Competing in Today’s Job Market. That post covered the importance a job candidate’s digital presence before being hired while this post covers the predictive potential of an employee’s digital presence after they have become an employee and integrated themselves into an organization.

Data Generation

The author begins by focusing her attention upon the modern tools and platforms used in the workplace for people to communicate and collaborate such as Skype and Slack. More traditionally, there is email. While these modes are important, they can also be a “mixed blessing”. Careful management of these technologies can assist is determining which forms of “digital communications are productive” for both employers and their employees.

Most importantly, these systems produce huge volumes of data. As a result, some firms are developing “next generation products” containing analytical capabilities to deeply dive into these databases and the networks they support.¹,²

The author mentions that her former company, VoloMetrix, is engaged in this field and has been acquired by Microsoft. The examples and her article concern work done for the firm’s clients before it become part of MS. During this time, VoloMetrix worked for years “with executives in large enterprises” to enable them to discern patterns within employees’ digital communications.

Predicting Employee Performance

A “strong network” can be a predictive factor of an employee’s performance. For example, a software company looked at a year’s worth of anonymized employee email data across all job categories. The findings showed that:

  • The best performers were characterized by 36% larger in-house networks, when compared to average performers, where they connected “at least biweekly in small group messages”. (This criterion was used to determine “strong ties”).
  • The lower performers exhibited “6% smaller networks” when compared to average performers.

On an annual basis, the “size and strength” of employees’ networks proved to a better predictor of their performances than managers’ more traditional assessments. Thus, being “intensely engaged” in collaborating with their peers was a driver of their work performance.

This effect was likewise seen at other business-to-business sales concerns. For instance, at a software company the top 10 workers in sales were, on average, connected to 10 or more of their colleagues. Their internal networks proved to be 25% larger than the networks of low performers. When social graph data (used to visualize the structures of networks), was examined it frequently indicated that connections within a company were even more important than those outside of it.

Predicting Employee Potential

Some businesses use “engagement programs” to assist the careers of employees are seen as having high potential to become future leaders. For example, a utility company studied the networks of a few hundreds of these people. They discovered that:

  • Those people who “were often the most connected” were shown to have networks “52% larger than average”.
  • Nonetheless, there were still others within this same group having networks of “below average” dimensions.

Managers surveyed reported that the less connected workers also had “great skills or ideas”, but displayed “potentially less” extroversion³ or emotional intelligence 4 needed to become influential. Still, opportunities are available to assist these people to “gain a broader audience” with better connected “agents” who, in turn, can promote their ideas.

Furthermore, growing a large network only for its own sake is not always the optimal approach. Rather, some networks are “more effective” because of who they include. That is, if they include people who have higher degrees of influence.

Another client, a hardware company, advanced their analysis to examine the “composition and quality” of the networks assembled by their sales reps. Their findings indicated that:

  • The “involvement of certain sales roles” corresponded to a 10X increase in the size of deals with customers.
  • Some sales roles were characterized as “middlemen” and, as such, did not “clearly demonstrate” anyone’s personal leadership potential.

Synthesizing Two Approaches

As described above, two analytical approaches have emerged for examining and leveraging the insights gained from communications networks. Both can work well in conjunction with the other. First is awareness whereby business leaders:

  • Communicate the importance of building networks
  • Provide the network analytical tools
  • Maintain the “faith” that their employees will understand this message and act upon it

The second is the prediction of outcomes, most often by sales organization to determine “which deals will close”. While this currently is applied less often than the awareness approach, this situation is now changing.

The insights gained from studying communications networks which are then applied to help build better working relationships and performance, must be “used thoughtfully” while balancing human and technological factors. Moreover, for these to work properly and “make connections more meaningful and efficient”, effectively gathering sufficient data on how employees do their jobs and communicate with their peers is essential.

My Questions

  • What standards should be established to assess communication and collaboration networks? Should they be the same for all businesses and job types or varied from field to field? Should they be differentiated further from employer to employer within a field and then perhaps for every department and job title within the same firm? (For some excellent new reading on how professional networks compare in their breadth and effectiveness in different professions, I highly recommend reading another new article on The Harvard Business Review blog posted on February 19, 2016 entitled How Having an MBA vs. a Law Degree Shapes Your Network by Adina Sterling.)
  • How should “influential” members of a network be defined in a business environment? Is influencer marketing, where individuals with a significant online presence appear to have more influence upon others in their social networks and are thus given special attention by marketers, the correct model to consider?  If so, should businesses consider developing and applying the equivalent of a Klout score to their employees? (This is an online service that rates one’s relative influence across much of social media.)
  • Would it be helpful to a company’s workforce to make this data and analytics readily available to everyone on their internal network and, if so, what would be the benefits and/or drawbacks of doing so? Would access to one’s network’s shape and reach result in some unintended consequences such as pressuring workers to increase the size of their internal and external contacts?
  • Should rewards systems be piloted to see whether they can positively incentivize employees to nurture their networks? For example, for X amount of new contacts added that support a company’s goals, Y additional days off might be awarded.
  • Can network analytics be used to fairly or unfairly restrict workers with non-competition and non-disclosure clauses when they change jobs?

 


1.   Many of these 26 Subway Fold posts under the Category of Social Media also involve metrics and analytical systems for interpreting the voluminous data generated by a wide range of social media services.

2.  A thriving market exists today in enterprise search products that can index, search and unlock the valuable knowledge embedded deep within corporate email and other data platforms. Here is a list of vendors on Wikipedia.

3.  For a completely different and highly engaging analysis of the virtues of being an introvert in social and business environments, I highly recommend reading a recent bestseller entitled Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking (Broadway Books, 2013), by Susan Cain.

4.  The authoritative and highly regarded work on this subject is Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ (Bantam Books, 2005), by Daniel Goleman.

Establishing a Persuasive Digital Footprint for Competing in Today’s Job Market

"Footprints in the Sand", Image by Susanne Nilsson

“Footprints in the Sand”, Image by Susanne Nilsson

When you go to visit someone for either personal or business reasons, your host will, depending on the weather, politely ask and try to make sure that you do not track anything in from the outside. Yet in the case of a job search, this is exactly want you want to do but in the entirely virtual sense by focusing the attention of prospective employers upon your tracks across the web. Hence, your online digital footprint informs them that you fully understand how to create meaningful content and a genuine presence, and your facility with web technology.

I first became aware of this over twenty years ago. A friend told me a story about something that he did quite spontaneously during a job interview. This incident and its outcome were strikingly clever back then and its lesson still rings true today.

He had gone for an interview at an Internet startup. Despite his impeccable credentials and accomplishments, he sensed that he was getting nowhere with the interviewer. At the end of their discussion, he thought he had nothing to lose and offered to show the interviewer his own “fan web page” for The Rolling Stones. The interviewer was stunned that he even knew how to create a web page, something that unheard of at that time by anyone interviewing for this type of position. The interviewer immediately called in some of his colleagues to see this.

To borrow a line from Mick and Keith, you can’t always get what you want, but … my friend was offered the job on the spot. He had creatively and completely distinguished himself from all of the other highly qualified candidates by demonstrating that he understood and could apply the latest technology at the core of the company’s business. This was the first instance I was ever aware of where someone had successfully created and introduced his own unique online digital footprint into a job search. What was a novelty way back then has become nearly a necessity in many fields in today’s highly competitive job market.

We first visited this topic in the March 5, 2015 Subway Fold post entitled Does Being on Law Review or Effective Blogging and Networking Provide Law Students with Better Employment Prospects?.

The latest report on this trend was an insightful and instructive post in the February 2, 2016 edition of Knowledge@Wharton entitled Job Hunting? Why You Need a Strong Online Footprint (no author is credited). I highly recommend reading this in its entirety. I will summarize, annotate, and posed some of my own questions on making job seekers more of a, well, shoe-in during their searches.

Digital Footprints and Reputations in Relevant Online Communities

The conventional wisdom for today’s typical job searcher is to have a well-crafted resume and cover letter, and to have nothing questionable appear when a prospective employer Googles you. This has evolved further to the point where “establishing a strong and compelling online presence” is often required to land a first interview.  Employers are looking for candidates who have developed a respectable online presence, particularly in their relevant “professional community”.

As discussed by some of the leading experts interviewed for this report:

  • Monica McGrath, formerly the Vice Dean of Education at Wharton, is currently at work on “renewing her consulting” business. She has been surprised along the way by the number of inquiries by potential clients concerning whether she has “built a presence on blogs”. Specifically, they have been interested in determining whether, beyond merely a LinkedIn profile, whether she has developed a unique and professional “voice” as an expert.
  • Samantha Wallace, a recruiter at Korn Ferry Futurestep, believes that if a candidate’s digital footprint is not evident in an online network of importance to a client, the candidate might be removed from consideration. Such exclusion might occur when it significantly matters that a candidate has established a digital presence relevant to the job opportunity.
  • Peter Capelli, the Director of Wharton’s Center for Human Resources, find this a “remarkable shift” from prior times when executives were told to avoid the distractions of activities away from their jobs. While the same employer might still discourage this, they are nonetheless now expecting it in new candidates.

Supporting Data and Privacy Concerns

Conversely, ignoring or neglecting your online footprint could now be considered “taking a career risk”. According to a 2015 CareerBuilder-Harris Social Media Recruitment Survey of 2,000 US hiring managers:

  • More than one-third of prospective employers are disinclined to grant an interview for a candidate for whom no online data can be found.
  • Greater than 50% use social media to research candidates.
  • 56% checked for a relevant digital footprint.
  • 37% researched “what others were” posting about job seekers.
  • One-third of hiring managers found information online that resulted in extending a job offer.

Furthermore, some candidates are being asked for their user credentials for their social media accounts because employers believe this can lead them to “a deeper layer of comments” and other data. Privacy advocates are understandably concerned about this. As of 2015, nine states have passed legislation preventing such requests in order to “get or keep a job”.

This fundamental change in the recruiting process has forces employees and their prospective hires alike to examine their roles. Wharton management professor Nancy Rothbard believes that issues of privacy concern “society in general”, not limited only to employers requesting access to someone’s Facebook account. Rather, companies like Google are aware of “almost everything about you”, and the breadth of anyone’s digital trail online is tremendous. She thinks that the “people analytics movement” attempts to gather and intuit the vast stores of information about individuals, thus presenting a privacy issue here that has yet to be addressed in the job market.

Tending to Your Own Digital Footprint

The popular news site Buzzfeed recently posted an opening for a Social Media Strategist. The online application asked for candidates’ resume and links to social media accounts or their blogs. (Click on the preceding link and this can be seen under “To Apply”.) Thus, all of the applicants’ digital footprints are essential to the job because, in turn “developing a digital footprint is the job”.

But should the same be true for other positions and businesses?

According to Jon Bische, the CEO of the recruiting platform firm  Entelo, there is some room here depending on the circumstances and nature of the job, but in many fields it is “reasonable to expect some digital presence”. For example, in searching for an engineer or designer, there are now professional networks that have become a “community of record” for a field, and other sites where their professional coding and designs can be assessed. He believes that doing so “gets close to someone’s abilities”.

We are likely still in the early stages of determining how to distinguish oneself online as an expert in their field. Ms. Wallace thinks defining this is still “ambiguous” since it is the individual himself or herself who is creating their own digital footprint and thus they will intentionally “find the connections to promote themselves” as experts.

Mr. Bischke offered the following suggestions for creating a viable digital footprint and control your personal brand including:

  • Google yourself to make certain the top links “are professional and up to date”. Take steps to make any corrections to insure their accuracy.
  • Establish profiles on sites and among networks within your field.
  • Make sure that your information is “presented consistently” across these online venues.

“Generational factors” also influence the nature and breadth of someone’s digital footprint. This is particularly so for Millennials, the global demographic group including people born between the early 1980s and the early 2000s. They are growing significantly in the population and work force, and will have digital footprints that present “a different sense of self than their elders”.

My Questions

  • Depending upon the particular profession, how will employers now and in the future, assign relative weighting in evaluating:
    • Candidate A who went to a top-level university and distinguished himself academically but who only has a small online footprint in comparison to
    • Candidate B who attended a more mid-level university but she has strategically built a very robust online presence and respectable reputation across peer sites and forums?
    • What are the possible offsets and equivalents between these two types of hypothetical applicants?
  • Might consideration of these factors also potentially create some unanticipated form(s) of employment discrimination?
  • What else can be done to enhance the persuasiveness and pervasiveness of a candidate’s digital footprint? What about these strategies:
    • Producing a web metrics summary about the numbers of visitors and volumes of hits on specific content?
    • Applying principles of content strategy and SEO ranking to boost traffic numbers?
    • Engaging a professional to do implement these strategies or might that be gaming the system a too much?
  • Will situations arise where employers who are impressed by someone’s digital footprint still try to recruit this person even though he or she is not currently looking for another job? (There was a very similar story in an August 24, 2015 post on TheHustle.com entitled Google Has a Secret Interview Process… And It Landed Me a Job, by Max Rosett, where the company recruited the author based on the subjects and contexts of his searches.)