Friday, March 09, 2007

It turns out that I AM a number

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.


Kenny said...

"Big cool database"? I can't believe you even wrote that. :)

I like the idea of coffee with OJ. I'm going to do tea with cheese.

Tracy said...

Ok, after trying to explain sql to my sis-in-law - I find NOTHING wrong with "big cool database".

How would their database handle the fact that yes, I do take my coffee with milk, but only from Starbuck's (or other commercialized baristas), and then usually it's more milk than coffee. And I would NEVER use creamer. Because...I just find creamer odd. The little cups of it that sit in our office coffee room...flavored white juice that doesn't need's just odd.

But anyway - I've always felt that if tracking my every purchase at the grocery store gets me coupons and free stuff, I don't care what they do with the info.

Stan said...

Kenny doesn't realise that I'm still in a state of childlike awe regarding the database server in question. I've seen such amazing things done - even by complete card-carrying morons.

When I trained as an accountant we studied something called "the value of imperfect information", which says that there is a value to being right 80% of the time rather than 50% of the time. I think that's what's going on here - you can't be completely sure, but you can be more sure.

Personally I'd rather put correction fluid in my coffee than creamer - I'm sure the ingredients are pretty similar and the taste can hardly be worse.