Tuesday, May 8, 2012

The Power of Personalization


One of the advantages of automatic generation of content is the fact it provides an opportunity for personalization.  That is, news and information that is aimed directly to an audience of one… you in particular.  Many possibilities come to mind: stock market reports that reference your portfolio, a sports stories that mention players from your home town, medical stories that tie back into medication you are taking.  All of these types of stories could be potentially personalized.

Unfortunately, every time we bring this up, we hear from concerned journalists and experts who track the news business who are worried that such personalization will only amplify the already focused news consumption that is the “news filter bubble.” The worry is that people will only ingest those pieces of news that are directly aligned with their beliefs and interests and ignore content that is outside of their current scope.  If we personalize the content, they argue that this will only make matters worse.  People will read what they already want to read and the fact that the content is personalized will only reinforce their unwillingness to look elsewhere.

If we were putting together a news-based web site and thinking only about how to customize it to present content based on a particular reader’s interests, I would have to agree… that amplifies the bubble.   But we are thinking on a different scale.  We are thinking about the content itself and how it can be personalized and made relevant on the micro level rather than presenting content on the macro level.  We are thinking about how content can be made relevant to an individual even when they might not be already inclined to ingest (or understand) that content in its more generic form.

Recall for a moment 2009 when President Obama was talking about gas prices and suggested that people could save 3% on gas utilization by checking their tire pressure and making sure that under inflated tires were not dragging their mileage numbers down.  He suggested that another 4% could be saved if people kept their cars in tune.  For most people who read about this, his suggestion was abstract at best and he was ridiculed widely for trying to solve a global issue with a very local solution.  Even though he did point out that this would mean that nationally we would save about 10 billion gallons of gas (a national savings of about 30 billion dollars) people had a hard time with the notion.

The problem of course is that these are numbers and ideas that have nothing to do with the individual and so as individuals, we let them slide by.  And the reality is that a number or idea that is ignored is also an action that is not taken.

Imagine instead if the story had been genuinely personalized.  Imagine if the story had been focused on you, your car, your local gas prices and your driving habits.  For me that would be: given that I drive a 2002 Ford Escape, which gets around 16MPG, and I live in Chicago, where gas prices are at about $4.50, and I drive about 1000 miles a month… I could get a story that tells me that I could save about $20 dollars a month or $240 a year by making sure my tires were inflated while I gassed up my car.

This one little piece of personalization changes my relationship with the news I am presented.  It links it to my life and my concerns.  It in no way reinforces a view I already have but opens up the door to understanding how an abstraction is relevant to my day-to-day existence.

Narrative Science is by no means at this point yet.  This limit is not because of the technology; it can handle this sort of personalization just fine, but is instead a limit that comes from the availability the data. But this information, or more to the point, data, becomes more and more available, we will be pushing on how we can generate to that audience of one.  This is not so that people will only read those pieces of news that they already care about.  On the contrary, it is so they will understand through personalization of the news, those ideas and issues that they might have ignored because they could not see their immediate relevance.

Ironically, personalization as Narrative Science has begun to do it has the potential to burst the news filter bubble by letting people understand how facts, events and issues in the world can actually impact them as well as how they impact the world.

Next Week: The audience of one in the world of big data: Transforming Education

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