Thursday, 25 September 2014

Wearables: Three issues for Insurance to try on for size

A supplement in The Times newspaper has quoted from my analysis of the potential of wearables to change the way the insurance industry works. I've published the analysis below in full and the Times article is here.

Wearables + the IoT = Lots of excitement
Wearable technology becomes exponentially more interesting for the insurance industry when the data that devices collect about our behaviour are combined with data emanating from the broader ‘Internet of Things’ (IoT). In fact insurance has been called the‘nativebusiness model’ for the IoT, a term that describes the anticipated 26 billion internet connected objects by 2020, in the same way that advertising was dubbed the native business model of the internet. 

The Internet of Things. That's the dry theory but how about messy reality?
Phil Windley ‘Web ofThings’ CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 licence 

With more data to cross reference, for example data collected about our exercise regime through a wearable health bracelet with what smart cutlery says we are shovelling into our mouths, the theory is that predictions can be made more accurate and premiums more reflective of our lifestyles.

Steady on! Three issues to address
Before the insurance industry gets too excited about the potential of wearable technology and the IoT however, there are three crucial issues to consider. Firstly, whether wearables become ubiquitous is out of the industry's hands and depends on the extent that they enhance our lives as social beings. Secondly, the industry needs to find ways to access available sensor data and finally if it does, it may find that too much exposure to our personal data exhausts may be as useless as too little. In more detail:

 One - Factors affecting the popularity of (particular) wearable devices
Wearable technology is not new and has social meaning
One Lucky Guy ‘Knight of the Hundred Years War’ CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 licence

The main challenge for the manufacturers of wearable technology is how to make their products desirable. Their success will dictate the uptake of wearables and therefore their usefulness to the insurance industry. The most forward thinking technology companies have realised both that what we wear has symbolic value, plays into cultural processes and that data alone is of limited use to us as social beings. Why else would there be a solid gold version of the new Apple Watch, which has self tracking functionality, other than to signal something about ourselves? Being interested in data per se is a niche pursuit an even then has social aspects, as demonstrated by the practices of 'quantified self' movement adherents. For others the connected nature of the new generation of wearables can help them play into age old inter-social dynamics such as bonding and building our reputations. 

Worn in the same place and about fashion and so many things besides
dlane cordell ‘Time to get fit 5/09/14’ CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 licence

The success of particular wearables is not guaranteed (look at what happened to Nike's ostensibly successful Fuelband) and the insurance industry will have to understand which have the best prospects based on these criteria, before getting into bed with them, or rather slipping them onto their wrists.

Two - Accessing the data
Accessing the data is the next issue for the industry. Privacy concerns, made all the more real by Snowden’s NSA revelations, will potentially temper peoples’ and societies’ willingness to share the data they generate voluntarily or inadvertently with companies and by extension the government. Further, insurance companies are not the natural data gatekeepers. They will either have to work with those who are, for example Microsoft’s deal with American Family Insurance earlier this year to find ways to put sensors into our domestic environments, or let Google, which already knows far more about our risk profiles through its plethora of platforms, dictate the terms.

Three - More data brings more headaches
Finally, big data analytics is in its infancy and struggles with the same problems that statisticians always have done. Leaving aside issues of the compatibility of different sources of data, one of the most relevant issues for the insurance industry that may suddenly have access to many more variables from our personal data exhausts, is how to work out what patterns are significant. This problem is compounded by very real disagreements about the virtues or otherwise of certain practices: It's all well and good being able to track that an individual has just had a glass of red wine but the medical establishment itself can't agree on whether that's a good or a bad thing.

Two rather more interesting questions
As a postscript we could ask two perhaps more interesting questions. How does society stand to be changed by the interest of the insurance industry in collecting more behavioural data and why do we behave in the way such data show we do?

One - Are we coming to assume you have something to hide?
Andrea R ‘Sarah has nothingto hide’ CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 licence 
By rewarding or insisting on transparency the insurance industry reinforces the assumption, espoused by governments and tech giants such as Google that we have something to hide if we don’t want our lives to be subject to close examination. But there are a number of very good reasons why the prospect of us becoming ‘entrepreneurs of the self’, namely managing personal data portfolios that we selectively release in exchange for perks, is not adequate compensation for the all-encompassing surveillance that is entailed. One of those reasons has to do with the use to which that data is put, for example by the government (which has access to all of it) to make predictions about our future behaviour that create suspicion based on obscure algorithms. Incidentally, insurance companies grappling with our data exhausts will also increasingly use obscure algorithms over which we have no recourse and that stand to entrench discrimination if for example the wealthy can opt out over the kinds of surveillance and behavioural controls that the poor are subject to in order to qualify.

Two - Big data needs small data
Big data needs to be complemented by ‘small data’ (or 'thick data') collection if it is to mean anything. A series of ‘big data’ sensors in smoke alarms might be able to tell an insurance company that they are routinely left with flat batteries but until you investigate the reasons why by looking at the personal and social contexts that influence individuals’ decisions not to replace a battery, you aren’t going to have much luck in changing behaviours. That’s where a digital anthropologist comes in…

Thursday, 11 September 2014

‘Anti-social networking’ site Pencourage: 'Antidote' to polished Facebook profiles?

I was asked recently by a journalist from the Press Association to comment on the anonymous site Pencourage.

It has been dubbed as the anti-social network and the 'real-life Facebook' because users are encouraged to be completely honest about their lives.

The journalist's specific question was: Is it a good thing that we can vent our true feelings and not have to hide behind the 'fake' profiles we build on sites like Facebook?

Here are my thoughts and at the end is a link to the published article which puts them in context:

Pencourage is reselling us the popular fantasy that we have a single authentic self and it tells us that it can help us give vent to that self, without feeling the kind of social pressures that regulate our behaviour on Facebook. For a social scientist the two problems are that we don’t have such a self and that we are exchanging one set of pressures for another.  

Our lives are a series of performances that take account of the social setting and the audience. Sociologist Erving Goffman established this convincingly in the 60s. In that sense we have multiple selves and now, one of those selves may be our Facebook presence. Our profile is not ‘fake’, but it might give rise to some mental discomfort as we deal with how different audiences come together and we decide what we should reveal in that environment.

Pencourage is another avenue for another one of our many selves. Here, what we post is still influenced by considerations such as the thought that it must be interesting enough to gain the attention of the audience. This will encourage certain things to be written, in certain ways.

It might be instructive to look at the situation in Trinidad, where people have the same concern about how to portray ones true self, but the conclusions about how to do this are very different. Anthropologists have reported that just as in Carnival, where the mask you create is said to reveal your true personality, Facebook profiles are said to do the same. So you don’t need a Pencourage account to be true to yourself: Ironically, more about your 'real' self is said to be revealed by the Facebook profile you create. 

Whether Carnival mask or Facebook profile, it's all the real me
Image of Ragamuffin (Trinidad). Copyright Georgia Popplewell CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 Licence:
The takeaway point for businesses is that they really need to understand the social worlds they are launching products and services into. Would Pencourage's message resonate as strongly in Trinidad? The takeaway point for social scientists working in the commercial world is that popular perceptions as much as behavioural ‘reality’ could provide a sound basis for a business. Time will tell whether Pencourage is one such business…

http:// (remove the space after http://)

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

Ethnography: An EPIC platform for spreading the word

In 2013 the international Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Conference (EPIC) took a foray into PR, with the objective of explaining the rationale for ethnography to new audiences. Here is a description of the two principal campaign strands. I conclude with three takeaways that strategy, research and design consultancies trying to get the message out might also find useful.

EPIC is a well-respected, thriving event that delivers on its mission to bring together leading practitioners and foster debate. That was reason enough for me to be involved a local organiser with a focus on arranging some of its networking events. But I could not resist bringing a PR lens to bear because of my background in it (which actually lead me to ethnography/anthropology). So I suggested EPIC should dip its toe in the water with a micro campaign to promote ethnography’s applications. This entailed working through the media and also direct engagement to reach high-level 'client-side' decision-makers.

Would anyone listen? I anticipated an uphill battle in part because of the widespread beliefs that the only behavioural insights of value flow from quantitative 'big data' (v.s. qualitative or mixed methods ethnography) and that the only skills worth having in innovative organisations derive from STEM (science, technology, engineering, maths) training (v.s. the social sciences or humanities backgrounds of most ethnographers).

But I realised that we could also turn these beliefs to our advantage by challenging them, David and Goliath style. The prospect of doing this gave me personal satisfaction: One thing that experience as an ethnographer has taught me is that STEM thinking, narrowly construed, can’t on its own solve challenges in business and society.

Media relations: the approach and the outcome
When you want to make a complex case through the mainstream on and offline print media, which still has the greatest reach, two of the most appropriate formats are bylined articles that you write yourself and features put together by a journalist. They are not equivalent: Apart from lending themselves to different kinds of discussion the latter tend to carry more weight.

Journalists like pithy arguments. Ethnographers are
not so keen.

[Image: adapted original by Billy1847, used under a
creative commons licence (CC By 2.0)]
We chose the latter course, but in the knowledge that putting a complex topic in hands of another party to convey is inherently risky. In the case of ethnography, journalists cannot seem to get past the compelling if over-used image of the colonial era pith-helmeted anthropologist transplanted in time and place to a modern day suburban home or office.

On the rare occasions that journalists try to get beyond this image, because they have been granted more time or space by their editors than is usually available (the FT scores some points in this regard but is by no means perfect), they can still fall at the final hurdle and reduce ethnography to observation…or journalism. Some ethnographic practitioners argue that such exposure should be encouraged because it at least brings attention to the field. Others resent the perception such pieces build of ethnography as an exotic and marginal practice.

But I digress. We invited a Financial Times editor to attend EPIC. In the pitch (necessarily top-line because journalists are busy people!) we offered him an opportunity to interrupt his blanket and largely positive coverage of big data. The idea that organisations are also gathering 'thick data' to understand why people behave in the way big data may show them to be behaving, appealed to his critical sensibilities.

The journalist he delegated came and spoke to EPIC organisers and participants in depth. The resulting full-page article did not deviate a great deal from the pattern described above, but at the very least it was the first time in a long time that FT readers, leaders in a broad range of sectors, were invited to think about the place of ethnography in addressing their particular challenges.

Direct engagement: the approach and the outcome
We complemented the mediated approach above with direct engagement, to spread the word about ethnography in another way. We identified and locked horns with the most extreme protagonist in a broader debate about the relative values of STEM and the humanities/social sciences/liberal arts.

Being heavily involved with STEM-grounded enterprises, ethnographic practitioners are uniquely placed to add their voices to the debate and make the case for the value of non-STEM education and thinking. The very fact that some of the most recognised names in Silicon Valley are relying on the input of humanities trained researchers and social scientists to, for example, make products that people actually want to use, should give pause for thought to some of the more stridently pro-STEM and anti-humanities/liberal arts/social sciences voices. Or in other words: We’re on the same side, stupid!*

We picked on particularly outspoken, but clearly not stupid, UK businessperson Luke Johnson (choice quotation: “to remain competitive, the west needs more students qualified in…[STEM]…and fewer in the liberal arts”). We invited him to challenge his views about the value of the liberal arts at EPIC: We asked him if he wanted to hear first-hand how the specific skills gained through education and training in the humanities and social sciences are applied in a STEM context. In a similar way anthropology-disparaging Florida Governor Rick Scott was presented with evidence that anthropology and anthropologists were an indispensable part of the Florida economy and society. We were not naïve enough to think Luke might recant but thought he might at least reflect and share his experiences with his network.

The result? Luke politely declined. His response is on an earlier blog post, along with my response to him. 

That was the end of the limited PR experiment, which pointed the way to the future for EPIC and some ways consultancies can join the PR fray.

Future directions for EPIC and consultancies using ethnography
Looking ahead EPIC could continue to act as an advocate for the profession on an ongoing basis and gain wider attention for the event itself.

1.  One of the key assets EPIC has at its disposal is the collection of case studies it brings together: Anything that can relate research work to tangible outcomes should be used to help move media coverage on from pith helmets. Individual consultancies find hard to produce enough publicisable case studies to drive their own outreach efforts because of client restrictions and the long term nature of the work. They could instead collaborate with their peers via EPIC, to put the best of what they have on a powerful single platform

2. EPIC could also think about writing an ongoing series of bylined articles for relevant publications. The subjects can be many and varied and take a cue from what is on the event agenda, but should always aim to be topical. One of those issues could be the STEM debate, which manifests in different ways. The bylined articles tactic is more achievable for a consultancy on its own, writing articles tailored to its particular expertise and outlook**

3. Finally, EPIC could do more with direct outreach. Many consultancies are successfully doing this on a smaller scale by hosting salons, often on the theme of reports they have produced. In EPIC’s case it could focus on the theme that lead to the Luke Johnson invite, only inviting more protagonists and convening a special panel to debate it at next year's conference in New York. The output from that panel could be disseminated more widely

*Some in engineering have come to the same conclusion, for example the people over at Big Beacon

**There is some great guidance on writing bylined articles here:

Plus here (in the comments) I expand on questions of writing and media relations:

Monday, 30 December 2013

When anthro research and the media collide... can get a flurry of inaccurate headlines, followed by further media analysis pieces that take as their starting point those headlines rather than the underlying research. Especially in the holiday season when news is thin on the ground.

This is what happened to UCL's @dannyanth when his academic research found Facebook lacked cool among UK teenagers and blogged about it. The media used this as evidence to bash Facebook and claim it was in sustained decline globally. Then the recriminations started, when other journalists criticised this conclusion as if it were Danny's. This is Danny's response. I hope people read it, but realise that the media circus has moved on so the chances are slim.

It's a real shame that this has happened to such a significant piece of long term anthropological research on social media, which is just out of the starting blocks. The final findings are a long way off but judgement has already been reached.

It's also a shame because the experience will only make other academic researchers say 'I told you so'. They will keep their research from public view and the threat of misconstrual (which reflects badly on them in academic circles).

Perhaps there really is a fundamental disconnect between the anthropological/ethnographic approach and news media expectations / the news media modus operandi. Among other shortcomings the media has a bias towards covering quant research. This bias is long-standing because it takes less mental energy to understand than qual and makes for more impactful headlines. Where audience attention is in short supply, so is coverage of qual research (which is what made this BBC award for ethnography particularly welcome as an exception that proves the rule). Academic anthropological research is more nuanced than the (news or indeed long form) media would like, hence the selective reading of Danny Miller's work. Note the media fixation on the research's quant findings in Italy as if that's the only part of the research that proves anything, along with Danny's retort that you need to do the qual groundwork to provide the basis for quant questionnaires.
My three hats (ok, I only found
this two hat image)
Image: justOneMoreBook used under a
creative commons licence (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

I'm saying this wearing my three hats (anthropologist, journalist and PR person) and as someone who has witnessed this dynamic for many years. However, in this instance the media takeup was largely inadvertent and I hear from Danny that he has been considering suitable popular formats for the publication of the research as a whole, where he will have more editorial control.

I'll be exploring some of the issues involved in releasing (applied) qual research into the wild in my next post, which is about some outreach that I helped the Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Conference (EPIC) conduct in 2013.

Postscript: 'Facebookgate' triggered lots of comment on Twitter and lists such as Yahoo's 'Anthropology and Design' group. Here are three worth repeating:

"Danny's comment that Facebook is "dead and buried" was an interpretation on its "cool" factor, not on its frequency of use or numbers of users....It's very difficult for something significant, though not generalizable, to capture the public attention. Why? Because we have so internalized the notion of statistical prediction that we fail to see things as important if they are not indicative of a massive change....The tragic outcome of this? We fail to see change until it's too late."
- Sam Ladner

"Perhaps someone should explain journalists, once and for all, that to ask how many people are thinking of Facebook in a given way, or doing things with Facebook in particular ways, is altogether different from identifying NEW WAYS by which people are thinking and doing things with Facebook. Not to mention identifying the differences between thinking and doing, in Facebook or else, that tend to show us all as a bit more flawed, contradictory, multi-faceted and ultimately A BIT MORE HUMAN and A BIT BETTER TO DESIGN WITH than a T-test will ever do."
- Pedro Oliveira finally a very well considered response from academic anthropologist Tom Boellstorff, which argues that ethnography: "is a question of meaning, of understanding ways of living, not of prediction." I.e. the wider public judges research by its predictive potential only and this colours what they are receptive to, with problematic consequences for disciplines such as anthropology. And a very different response from a journalist, which does a good job of explaining where the media come from and why journalists sometimes get it wrong.

Thursday, 19 December 2013

Twitter and malaria: Joining forces to fight poverty

WTF? That was my reaction too as I read an FT article which came to the radical conclusion that Twitter and malaria are bedfellows in the global fight against poverty. 

This mosquito has shares in Twitter.
Image courtesy It's Nico under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 licence

Ok, I admit that I have heard the argument that connectivity alone can combat social, political and economic ills many times. It’s something that Evgeny Morozov has called technological humanitarianism. Got a problem with poverty, education or dictators? Throw some technology at it. Don’t try and understand the problem or worry about the circumstances in which the technology is deployed.

In discussing connectivity’s contribution to solving poverty (ultimately in an effort to justify Twitter’s share price), the journalist makes the general point that it changes behaviour radically and positively. He rehashes some tired anecdotes, for example the one about the African farmer using his mobile to find higher prices at market (no, I’m not sure about where Twitter fits into this picture either).

The anthropological evidence, unsurprisingly, paints a more nuanced picture. Namely in general terms digital technology often facilitates social reproduction rather then change. Specifically, anthropology has convincingly refuted the 'farmer uses phone' anecdote as myth. In other words, the journalist is wildly optimistic about technology’s potential to heal the world autonomously. Silicon Valley would welcome him as one of their own.

But Silicon Valley might want to reconsider the welcome after reading a few lines on. He maintains connectivity would do more for Africa than immunity to malaria in financial terms (and that the investment of well-meaning tech philanthropists such as Bill Gates into the latter is misdirected). That is far from convincing in itself given what I say above (and think about productivity gains from a healthy malaria-free population). Worse, he thinks a malaria cure would actually cause more poverty because malaria acts as a great population control mechanism in overpopulated countries, making it doubly stupid to invest in it from a financial point of view.

Even if all his previous arguments stacked up we need to ask him: Is money the only thing people care about? Even FT readers?

Anyway, I was moved to write a response that the FT published and an elaboration of it for the Popanth website.


A timely intervention from Melinda Gates about the myth, propagated by the FT journalist, that saving lives leads to overpopulation (see myth three).

She notes that anxiety about the size of the world population has a dangerous tendency to override concern for the human beings who make up that population.

Friday, 27 September 2013

Do you prefer your sciences hard or soft?

High profile entrepreneur Luke Johnson prefers them hard, at the expense of the soft.

I criticised him for his view that research and education funding should be concentrated even more on science, technology, engineering and maths subjects in my post on the Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Conference blog, which can be accessed here.

To summarise the post, it points out that the view that technology alone holds the key to individual, corporate, political, economic and social progress holds sway in business and politics. What is alarming now is that the humanities, social sciences and liberal arts are seen as irrelevant and suffer funding cuts and declines in student numbers whilst STEM skills and STEM oriented businesses are lauded.

Not for politicians such as Florida Governor Rick Scott and businesspeople such as Ed Conard broad arguments about the value of critical thinking, a knowledge of world history and imagination for a capable citizenry, narrower arguments about the humanities/liberal arts backgrounds of key businesspeople or even more pointed arguments about the relationship between an exposure to the arts and entrepreneurial success for STEM majors: No, these politicians and businesspeople doggedly assume a STEM education can teach you all you need to know about making things (whereas it might dull the ability to appreciate what people need), that STEM advances always enhance economies (they can actually shrink GDP) and that more STEM graduates are needed (but there might be an oversupplythere certainly isn’t a shortage).

In my capacity as one of the organisers I also invited Luke to attend EPIC. I wanted him to hear at first hand why "in order to be an engineer it is not enough to be an engineer," from some representatives of the technology companies he lauds.

Luke declined the offer and I responded: The exchange can be found below.



Thanks for the invitation.

I’m afraid I have too much to do to attend your conference.

I understand why you hold the views you do, but I stand by my opinion on the importance of STEM education if the UK is to retain its relative economic strength in the 21st century.  Social scientists didn’t found Google, Intel, IBM, Facebook, Microsoft etc.




Thanks for your response Luke,

Sorry to hear you can’t make the conference. Two points I’d like to make before signing off:

The STEM education / tech company success link isn’t that straightforward, because:

a) Microsoft et al.’s global dominance might be better (or at least co-) explained by a domestic US culture of risk taking or the availability of VC money for example
b) China and India churn out hundreds of thousands of engineers, yet lag in terms of innovation related to most STEM fields (measured by e.g. patents)
c) A number of US tech company founders dropped out of their STEM courses and are proud of it

As a senior person developing products at a well-known Internet company confided in me recently “purely engineering-driven companies do not succeed for long.” Most large players are investing heavily in understanding what people want so that their original inspirational ideas live on in relevant ways, or so that they can take bold new directions. In the UK, Amstrad might have been a different proposition with social scientists or humanities trained researchers on board

Kind regards,


Friday, 16 August 2013

Digital spying - we do have a choice...

...argues a certain digital anthropology pundit, published in the FT today. Text follows...

Peter Cochrane, former head of technology for BT, maintains that our digital data will be collected whether we like it or not (“Spy bin ban highlights lure of big data”, FT August 14).

He is wrong to suggest that we can simply extrapolate into the future what we experience now. It is also profoundly depressing to think that technology has an autonomous logic whose implications we should resign ourselves to. Technology, including big data, is what we make of it.

We have the power to create behavioural and legal frameworks to decide that features are harmful and constrain their impacts. In any event, these features are developed and exploited by people, companies and, in the case of the Prism spy programme, governments. These features are not inevitable or necessarily a sign of progress.

Let me illustrate with a historical example, for which I am indebted to internet theorist Evgeny Morozov, of where inevitablists who excused negative externalities in the name of technological progress were confronted. 

In the early 20th century, champions of industrialisation maintained that a noisy living environment, where the din of machinery and motorised transport intrudes, was a necessary penalty of enjoying the benefits of progress. We should simply adapt to the new normal. However, noise abatement movements arose in opposition and inspired the noise pollution regulations that balance our interests today.

I notice that Peter's current title is futurologist but I hope that his version of the future, where noisy robots rule the earth unchecked, does not prevail. In my version we continue to have agency vis a vis our tools and some peace and quiet.