Saturday, November 02, 2013

Beware - Big data is watching you

A few years ago, I was flying Air-India and my co-passenger was a 72 year old retired Doctor from Chicago. He was visiting Ahmedabad where his ancestors came from and his relatives still lived there. He had emigrated from India in the late 60’s.  We boarded the flight at Heathrow for Mumbai.  It would be about 8 hours of journey time.
I had the aisle seat and he had the window.
We wanted it the other way round.
Both of us sought the air hostess’s intervention for a problem that we could have solved mutually. She solved it for us with a very sweet smile.
Anyway, that is how we got talking.

He waxed eloquent about America. From what he knew, it was the land of milk and honey , of opportunities and freedom.  Europe was old, crowded, steeped in orthodoxy. Worse was India. It was corrupt, dirty and full of mosquitoes. I do not know why, but he was repeatedly agonizing about the mosquitoes that would swarm us when we land at the Mumbai airport. But he was nostalgic about 90 year old aunt whom he would meet in Ahmedabad.
I patiently listened to him. He then asked about me, my family and my occupation.

I told him I was returning to India from U.K and was eagerly looking forward to working in India.     
He dissuaded me against my come back and told me how corrupt and dirty India was. It was no place for bright young people to be in. He was convinced that I was not doing the right thing.

The man was completely out of touch. In any case his paternalistic attitude and that non-stop monologue had actually got me a little irritated. 

WTH, you visit India once in ten years for 10 days and make a judgement based on what it must have been in the 60’s when you emigrated. Come off it.
But, I did not tell him in those many words . 
It was now my  turn to talk and clear some misconceptions. ( Afterall mosquitoes have never bitten me in Mumbai airport … )    

I started with what I do for a living.   
Trust me I had to dumb down.
I told him I worked in the ‘IT’ industry.  
I realized I had to still dumb down.
For starters, I told him,  IT stood for Information Technology and not Income Tax.

During our conversation, he opened his wallet for something and I saw a REDCARD - the Target loyalty card and a credit card peeping out.  

‘So you shop at Target?’ I asked him .

‘Yes, it is a  huge retail chain.  Very huge.  Nothing like those Kirana dukaan walas in India. Good quality, they will never sell all adulterated stuff , no bargaining or cheating over there …he took off.  

Mmm… based out of Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Target and Best buy .. both of them.  
3M as well is’nt it.  
I must confess, I wanted to show off a little bit.   
His eyes widened. ‘How do you know? You said you have never been to America ?...
We work for them… I said.

The air hostess interrupted. She was serving lunch.
He declined. Instead, he pulled out a packet, unwrapped an aluminium foil and went on to eat some Thepla with mango chutney.
After all, Air –India, like most things Indian, cannot be trusted with hygenic food. 
Home made Thepla, freshly made 18 hours ago by his wife from a suburb in Chicago.
He offered me. I did not bother to refuse. I picked up a small piece. It was delicious.  

Do you get loyalty coupons from Target ?  I resumed the conversation. 
'Yes', he said.
Do they send you discount coupons and free offers to buy Lijjat papad, dessicated coconut, MDH masala, Tinned  Turiya, frozen drum sticks and the new variant of odor free Arthritis cream from Bengay.  
'Yes', there was astonishment in his eyes.

 Have you ever received any such offer for eggs, meat, beef , ‘ready to eat’ cup noodles, Huggies Diapers or Sanitary Napkins.       

How do you know ? …asked the astonished expression that emanated from his eyes. 
Actually the one thing you did not know is that you are being watched.... said the cheeky expression from my eyes.  

That is what me and my colleagues do.  We send you out these coupons so that you can buy  more of your favourite things at discounted prices.  My colleagues are based out of Bangalore, Chennai , Mumbai and even Ahmedabad… 
He was perplexed and confused.
Actually we don't know you. But we know what you buy, when you buy, how much you buy, not just from target but from different places at different times because we have your credit card data. 
No ... we do not have access to your credit card number ... Just the data on your Target Redcard ...   
No... no... no... we do'nt sneak into what you buy from Target ... there is a program that does it for you and for so many others of your age from your area.    

No ... no... no... we do not sneak into your private details ... it is just a pattern that the system throws up ...  

The next one or two hours, went on thus…Unbeknownest to me, I was explaining, what over the next few years would come to be known as the power of Big Data.
Here was a man, who inhabited a part of the world and lived in times, much before Information technology matured to bring about some significant changes and dictates the consumption patterns of his life in that suburb in Chicago.   
In the last two decades, Information technology has brought about some very profound changes in the way we think, eat and live.    

When you pick up that can of beer at the supermarket and stuff it in your basket to be scanned at the till, some IT professional half way across the globe or maybe just across the road, has already built an algorithm that has predicted that there is a 93.92% probability that you will be seduced to pick up the salted cashewnuts at the till before you pay the bill.
When you logon to your facebook page and click the ‘like’ button for Q cinemas from a laptop  near the box office counter, in park square mall, because only then they would give you a Rs.20 discount on your Rs.220 ticket at the counter, you do realize that this is ‘gamification’ at its best.   

Using the power of ‘big data’ you will soon receive emails on your yahoo id from 'Gitanjali jewels' at Park square mall if you facebook gender is female and from Amoeba for discounted offers for Bowling during ‘Happy hours’ if your facebook gender is Male.
Don’t they send you coupons to your email address just a couple of weeks before your birthday to a 50% off on your meal from Barbeque nation if you visit them on your birthday?  Along with that is a tie up with Madhu-loka that offers you discounted rates for a crate of beer cans (Only if your facebook age is between 21 and 35). Never mind if you are actually 12 years of age and gave your mummy's year of birth to open a facebook account upon advice from your friend, because you wanted to desperately stay connected to your friend from 5th standard who migrated to australia. 
You are the customer and customer is always the king. 

Thanks to the nasty feedback you gave on their feedback form at the Tex-Mex restaurant because the waiter over there did not get you, your starters and refills on time.  Over the email id that you gave on the form ( it was compulsory data field), they sweetly apologize for the shoddy service and they do not just stop at that.

Every year, on your ex's - birthday (that is what you mentioned on the feedback form because you were too smashed to remember yours) they let you have 1 beer can free if you buy another dozen. Only if you visit them just in time before your (ex's) birthday.
That is how we know that the uncle sitting next to me in that Air-India flight may have been a sucker for freebies, considering he was a repetitive consumer at the Asian groceries section, buying Lijjat papad with Punjabi masala flavor at the supermarket.
Pardon me for any perceived discriminatory statements here. This is not prejudice. 
Just the power of Big data.
I wanted to take my revenge and tell him that he was born at the wrong time and had migrated to the wrong place.
But I let it pass.
He lived in a different era and time where Pluto was still a planet, Apple was a mere fruit (that kept his patients away) and  Tablets were what he dispensed to his sick patients when they came down with a flu.
This post is a part of Write Over the Weekend, an initiative for Indian Bloggers by BlogAdda. We give out creative writing topics each weekend for Indian bloggers.



  1. That was an awesome post...thsnks for sharing...did not know that. And well incorporated into the story. :)

  2. Amazing post :) loads of information and very well built in around the prompt.

  3. Congratulations! I have nominated you for the Liebster award.

    Check out the post here


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