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‘Big Data’ Emerges as Key Theme at South by Southwest Interactive

Austin, Tex. — Companies are increasingly able to follow the digital breadcrumbs users leave behind online, and what they can deduce from those trails can be surprising. Several panels and speakers at this year’s South by Southwest Interactive festival talked about the growing ability to analyze “big data” to shape political campaigns, advertising, and education.

Some online marketers that analyze user behavior can even tell when female customers are ovulating to help target ads accordingly, according to Jaron Lanier, a pioneer of virtual-reality technology who is critical of many new trends in digital technology, including Web 2.0. He did not name any companies that used such analysis, but a recent New York Times article focused on how retail giants like Target seek to tailor ads to customers who are pregnant, since that is a time people are starting to buy baby-related items and establishing new shopping habits.

Mr. Lanier, who is a scholar-at-large at Microsoft Research, suggested that companies like Facebook, which rely on selling information about their users’ behavior to advertisers, should find some way to compensate people for their posts. “People have to make money from what they do on there,” he said, noting that as computers replace many other kinds of jobs, more people will need to make money in information industries. “Facebook could evolve into something that helps people make a living,” he added. “Capitalism won’t survive unless it does.” Audio from the talk is now online at the festival Web site.

A panel on education focused on the potential ability of Twitter and Facebook to better connect with students and detect signs that students might be struggling academically. “Students are spending a lot of time on social media, and they’re spending a lot of time in our learning-management systems,” said Greg Heiberger, a social-media researcher at South Dakota State University. “We need to be looking at engagement in this new spectrum, and we haven’t.” (Mr. Heiberger was filling in for a colleague who had originally been scheduled to appear.)

With the presidential campaign heating up, a few panels looked at the growing role of data in candidates’ quests for votes. After watching some of the sessions, David Parry, an assistant professor of emerging media and communications at the University of Texas at Dallas, said it highlighted what he considered troubling implications of blending “Moneyball and democracy.” While in recent elections, campaigns have focused on demographic subgroups, such as “soccer moms,” future campaigns may tailor their messages even more narrowly. “They’re actually going to try targeting groups of individuals so that political campaigns become about data mining” rather than any kind of broad policy message, he said. “It’s actually really disturbing.”

Most sessions painted data mining in a more optimistic light. One argued that “geeks” make the ideal policy makers, and another made the case for holding presidential primaries online.

In past years, the festival has helped new social-media services break out of obscurity into popular adoption. Twitter got a bump in the event in 2007, as did Foursquare in 2009. Some pundits noted that no one service seemed to dominate the buzz this year, but curiosity was high for new location-based smartphone apps such as Highlight and Glancee that signal when friends are nearby. The services will surely generate even more user data that could lead to new services, and new concerns.

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