The Herald Bulletin

December 9, 2013

Emmett Dulaney: The data both is and isn’t in the mail


The Herald Bulletin

---- — Possessing what could be labeled as a passing familiarity with information technology, there are two things that baffle me. The first is the sheer volume of data that gets collected and the second is the inability to do the most logical of tasks with it.

As a case in point, consider this: I have a son who is a senior in high school. I am not telling you anything that hundreds – if not thousands – are not cognizant of. Most of them know this because they bought access to one database or another and in that database it says that he will hopefully graduate high school before next summer and most likely go to a college next fall. Those who have gained possession of his name and mailing address prize him so highly that they see fit to keep the postal service in business just by sending him card stock on a daily basis depicting laughing coeds truly enjoying econ class at their institution. Since offers also come from merchants that would appeal to this same demographic (banks, apparel vendors, and so on), it is apparent that anyone wanting to buy a list of high school seniors would get his name and relevant information in the data file delivered to them. As a result of all this, I never realized how uninformed I was of the sheer number of schools and merchants that exist until I started devising ways to heat my house by burning 67lb Vellum Bristol.

Now to explore the example further, consider my employer-sponsored dental insurance provider. According to their correspondence and subsequent telephone conversation, my son will be removed from eligibility for dental coverage at the end of this calendar year – mere days from now — unless I can prove to them that he is a full-time high school student. Evidently, they don’t have access to any of the databases that everyone else in the world has. I find this quite ironic since my own employer is an academic institution and one of the main parties sending him circulars, yet the company they contract with to process their insurance claims doesn’t even know that he is getting multiple pieces of mail a week from them.

As silly as this example is, it serves as a great illustration of a very serious problem. We can collect data on almost anything – purchasing habits, commuting patterns, search keywords – but unless we know what to do with it, it is wasted. Naturally, the first thing thought of to do with it is always to commercialize and find a way to monetize it. That can be about as effective, however, as trying to teach microeconomics to a bunch of giggling girls.

Emmett Dulaney is an Anderson resident and the author of several books on technology. His column appears Tuesdays.