Next time you swipe your Giant Eagle Advantage Card, you may want to think twice. According to Matthew North, Ed.D., associate professor of information technology leadership, companies use perks like the Advantage Card to collect information about their customers. He shed light on the matter before a packed room of W&J faculty and staff members in his fall colloquium, "Data Mining: Why Giant Eagle Knows More About You Than You Do; and Amazon Knows Even More."
Data mining, North explained, is when statistics and computerized models are applied to data to find interesting and often unrecognized patterns. This data often is collected without consumers' knowledge. For example, every time an Advantage Card is swiped, Giant Eagle stores the complete record of what the customer bought. "Giant Eagle can tell you in fractions of a second what you bought and how much it costs," North said. This means that while the average consumer might not remember what they bought two weeks ago, Giant Eagle does.
North first became familiar with data mining as a software engineer and risk analyst at eBay, where he used data-mining software to predict when eBay deals would go south, demonstrating the method's broad applicability.
He explains that Amazon uses data mining in its own unique way as well. Amazon collects data about its customers' personal interests and then conveniently advertises products that match those interests online.
North showed an example of data collected by marketers of Kindle, Amazon's electronic-book reader. In addition to collecting Kindle customers' sex, age, marital status and payment method, Amazon also recorded how long it took them to buy the product, if they browsed other electronics, and if they ultimately purchased other electronics.
Even though Amazon has data about their customers' marital status and age, they are not interested in the individuals, but the groups in which the individuals belong. North stressed that companies primarily examine patterns, not people.
Now a professor at W&J for seven years, North's career change from corporate to academia might seem like a broad leap, but for North, it was an easy choice. "I really love to teach," he said. This was evident at the colloquium, where he spoke sincerely and passionately about his research. He wanted to share his knowledge on data mining with members of the campus community to encourage consumer awareness. "Pay attention to who you are giving your information to," he said. "While the collection of data by companies like Giant Eagle and Amazon has no inherent danger to the consumer, be wary of companies with not so good intentions."
-Ally Gilmore '12
Matt North, associate professor of information technology leadership at W&J, first gained experience in data mining while working at eBay.