I met a man yesterday who can predict with 80% certainty whether you take milk in your coffee.
Sure, he has a small army of statisticians with PhDs, a daily feed of supermarket shopping behaviour and one of the big, cool, expensive databases I specialise in. In fact he’s got the biggest database of its type in the world - but still it’s a pretty cool trick.
It’s no trick to find people who buy milk and coffee. But that doesn’t mean they put the milk in the coffee.
So what they do is they give vouchers to a few thousand people willing to fill in one of those book-length questionnaire. Only one of the questions is about your coffee/milk preference - the rest are nothing to do with coffee, milk or liquids at all. But the answers identify you like some sort of DNA sequence, to the extent that they can say that what kind of people are four times more likely than not to take milk in your coffee.
Armed with this information they know which of the 300 million Americans it’s worth trying to sell coffee-creamer to.
I’d love to think I’m an individual and rather more than the sum of my Tesco Clubcard transactions. But presumably someone mining my shopping data can say that I’m a married left-of-centre asthmatic blogger with one child and a taste for Indie music and technology. Also that I take my coffee black.
I’m going to take my coffee with orange juice from now on – nobody’s going to pigeonhole Stan.