Thoughts on the societal impact of the Internet of Things inspired by a unique dashboard product.
Newcomer to the BBBT
, on 2nd May, Kerry Gilger, Founder of VisualCue
took the members by storm with an elegant, visually intuitive and, to me at least, novel approach to delivering dashboards. VisualCue is based on the concept of a tile that represents a set of metrics as icons colored according to their state relative to defined threshold values. The main icon in the tile shown here represents the overall performance of a call center agent, with the secondary icons showing other KPIs, such as total calls answered, average handling time, sales per hour worked, customer satisfaction, etc. Tiles are assembled into mosaics, which function rather like visual bar charts that can be sorted according to the different metrics, drilled down to related items and displayed in other formats, including tabular numbers.
The product seems particularly useful in operational BI applications, with Kerry showing examples from call centers, logistics and educational settings. The response of the BBBT members was overwhelmingly positive. @rick_vanderlans described it as "revolutionary technology", while @gildardorojas asked "why we didn't have before something as neat and logical?" @marcusborba opined "@VisualCue's capability is amazing, and the data visualization is gorgeous!"
So, am I being a Luddite, or even a curmudgeon, to have made the only negative comments of the call? My concern was not about the product at all, but rather around the power it unleashes simply by being so good at what it does. Combine this level of ease-of-use in analytics with big data and, especially, data from the Internet of Things, and we take a quantum leap from measurement to invasiveness, from management to Big-Brother-like control.
Each of the three example use cases described by Gilger provided wonderful examples of real and significant business benefit; but, taken together, they also opened up appalling possibilities of abuse of privacy, misappropriation of personal information and disempowerment of the people involved. I'll briefly explore the three examples, realizing that in the absence of the full story, I'm undoubtedly imagining some aspects. Nor is this about VisualCue (who tweeted that "Privacy is certainly a critical issue! We focus on presenting data that an organization already has--maybe we make it obvious") or the companies using it; it's meant to be a warning that we who know some of the possibilities--positive and negative--offered by big data analytics must consider in advance the unintended consequences.
Detailed monitoring of call center agents' performance is nothing new. Indeed, it is widely seen as best practice and key to improving both individual and overall call center results. VisualCue, according to Gilger, has provided outstanding performance gains, including one center where agents in competition with peers have personally sought out training to improve their own metrics, something that is apparently unheard of in the industry. Based on past best practices and detailed knowledge of where the agent is weak, VisualCue can provide individually customized advice. In a sense, this example illustrates the pinnacle of such use of monitoring data and analytics to drive personnel performance. But, within it lies the seeds of its own destruction. As the agent's job is more and more broken down into repeatable tasks, each measurable by a different metric, human innovation and empathy is removed and the job prepared for automation. In fact, a 2013 study
puts at 99% the probability that certain call center jobs, particularly telemarketing, will be soon eliminated by technology.
The old adage "what you can't measure, you can't manage" is at the heart of traditional BI. In an era when data was scarce and often incoherent, this focus makes sense. However, applying it to all aspects of life today is, to me, ethically problematical. The example of monitoring the entire scope of an educational institution in a single dashboard--from financials through administration to student performance--is a case where our ability to analyze so many data points leads to the illusion that we can manage the entire process mechanically. The Latin root of "educate" means "to draw forth" from the student, the success of which simply cannot be gauged through basic numerical measures, and is certainly not correlated with the business measures of the institution.
The final example of tracking the operational performance of a waste management company's routes, trucks and drivers emphasizes our growing ability to measure and monitor the details of real life minute by minute. By continuously tracking the location and engine management signals from its trucks, the dashboard created by this company enabled it to make significant financial savings and improvements to its operational performance. However, it also enables supervisors to drill into the ongoing behavior of the company's drivers: deviations from planned routes, long stops with the engine running, extreme braking, exceeding the speed limit, etc. While presumably covered by their employment contract, such micromanagement of employees is at best disempowering and at worst open to abuse by increasingly all-seeing supervisors. Of much greater concern is the fact that these sensors are increasingly embedded in private automobiles and that such tracking capability is already being applied without owners' consent to smartphones
. As far as a year back, Euclid Analytics
had already tracked about 50 million devices in 4,000 locations according to a New York Times blog
I'm grateful to Kerry Gilger for sharing the use cases that inspired my speculations above. Of course, my point is beyond the individual companies involved and products used. At issue is the range of social and ethical dilemmas raised by the rapid advances in sensor technology, data gathered and the power of analytic software. Our every action online is already monitored by the likes of Google and Facebook for profit and by organizations like the NSA allegedly for security and crime prevention. The level of monitoring of our physical lives is now rapidly increasing. Anonymity is rapidly disappearing, if not already extinct. Our personal privacy rights are being usurped by the data gathering and analysis programs of these commercial and governmental organizations, as eloquently described by Shoshana Zuboff of Harvard Business and Law schools in a recent article
in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung
It is imperative that those of us who have grown up with and nurtured business intelligence over the past three decades--from hardware and software vendors, to consultants and analysts, to BI managers and implementers in businesses everywhere--begin to deeply consider the ethical, legal and societal issues now being raised and take action to guide the industry and society appropriately through the development of new codes of ethical behavior and use of information, and input to national and international legislation.