TRA Journal

The new data

Andrew Lewis

These days it’s hard to get through a gentle Friday scroll of LinkedIn or browse through the business press without coming across an anxiety-inducing click-bait headline about how much data the world is producing, and how this is going to change everything about how we live.

2.5 quintillion bytes of data created every day, they shout in uncomprehending awe! 90% of the world’s data created in the past two years, they urge you to grasp!

It is truly staggering, if you stop and think about it for a minute, this change in the record of life we are witnessing. And you certainly can’t help agreeing with the broad synopsis that this influx of information must change the way we go about understanding ourselves, our universe and the way we ultimately live our lives. How exactly might be unknowable to us, but the likelihood seems inevitable.

And if you’re anything like me or almost anyone I ever talk to on this subject, the immediate subconscious association that arises with this idea of ‘data’ and ‘volumes’ and ‘quintillabytes’ is one that tends to exist purely in the world of numbers and records, ones and zeros, scrolling down digital screens in our heads. Our ideas of ‘data’ tend to be mathematical and greyscale. All NASA control rooms and vast server farms.

But the truth is actually completely different. 

And while this striking story of data volume is leading the headlines, what lies behind this is an even more compelling story about the data we are generating. One that has a lot more to tell us about how things are going to dramatically shift in how well we can understand the human condition.

This second, more interesting story, lies in the nature of the data sources that sit behind this explosion to 2.5 quintillion bytes of data a day, and just how different these sources are to the greyscale data that has led our thinking through the early 2000’s.

When you dig into the numbers, the primary source making up this data explosion is human-generated media content, documenting with an unblinking eye every aspect of how we live our lives – the 422 million Facebook status updates, the 300 million photos shared, the 3.6 million Google searches typed (or voiced), the 656 million tweets, the 1.4 billion Tinder swipes, the 21.6 million GIFs shared on Facebook messenger EVERY DAY by the 3.7 billion people of the world on the internet.

What’s interesting about this type of data is that it not only documents our actual behaviour, but also starts to open a window into why we behave the way we do. This super-rich, extremely human ‘new data’ provides a much more compelling and deeply nuanced insight into the things that are motivating us to act as we do. Through the words we use, the things we photograph, the way we respond to others, this new data is painting, minute by minute, a very detailed living picture of what it means to be human, and what it is we seek from the world to fulfill us, to salve the pain of existence and to provide our lives with meaning.


When you play out what it means to people like ourselves, in the business of facilitating the exchange of goods and services, the only rational way to create such a seismic shift in the kind of data we have to help our practice, is to completely re-evaluate how we contemplate going about the job of understanding what people want from us, and what we consider our job to be as facilitators of commerce.

If such rich data is coming on-stream regarding what people are seeking from life, we need to be investing in understanding how this data can be harnessed effectively to create meaningful insight. And this is a big part of what we have been focusing on at TRA. Investing in both the development of technologies that allow us to access and process free-form data streams, such as machine learning, natural language processing and image recognition, and also investing in the kind of frameworks for thinking that allow us to apply these insights to business problems, such as frameworks for understanding and interpreting culture, behaviour and intention.

To give you a great example of this, we’ve been building an engine which can scrape content from around the globe and classify it into cultural currents, based on a framework for understanding the forces driving change in our work, built by our cultural strategists. Clients are now using this to develop innovation spaces that are on point with where change is taking them.

What lies at the heart of this re-evaluation is the idea of a mental pivot, from using human insight as something against which to test and modify our plans, to thinking about this rich flow of information about the human condition as something that we are immersed in, planning from this, constantly evolving with it. Somewhere we live day-to-day, rather than visit twice a year. 

Marketing has always been both a creator of culture and a response to it, but now more than ever that cycle has accelerated to the point where it acts more like an ongoing conversation than a pattern of discrete actions and reactions. Our thinking on how to engage between ‘organisation’ and ‘customer’ needs to shift in the same way.

So the fact that there is a lot more data being generated now is a game-changer, but it’s the type of data that’s being created that really holds the key for us. Understanding that this ‘new data’ is different is the critical message for us to contemplate. What does it mean to have a complete record of humanity’s hopes, fears, wishes and wants? 

It means we need to change.