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Making a Census of it all

I went to a café last week for lunch and bumped into an old acquaintance.

We ended up sitting down together and eventually got talking about the then forthcoming census. He couldn’t figure out why so much information about the people was needed.

I listened to his opinions about how the government were monitoring us. With his tin foil hat on, he went through point after point about how this information was his and shouldn’t be forced into giving it away.

“Why do they need this information and what use is it to them?” he asked.

“Well, the government look at trends within the data such as how many people cycle to work in Dublin City Centre from Sandymount or how many playgrounds are required in county Wicklow.” I replied

“OK” he said “but they don’t really need that information because it’s already out there”.

It was at this point that I referenced a few examples of how understanding data can have huge benefits and not just in government circles. Exploring the data held by any organisation can reveal huge potential.

I mentioned the urban legend of Walmart placing beer and nappies close to each other. “Eh?” he said puzzled and I then explained the story of the legend. Allegedly Walmart found that on Friday evening’s men in their thirties who were out shopping for nappies sometimes bought beer. So Walmart moved the pallets of beer beside the nappies. Straight away the sales of beer went up. My acquaintance was intrigued.

I mentioned how retailers use data mining and analysis quite a lot. Impulse buys are always located towards the front of the shop in places close to the tills. Milk and bread, the most commonly sold products are shelved at the back of the shop so the customer has to walk through the shop past so many other products to get these food staples.

“I’ve used these technologies many times in work” I told him. “All the big organisations are looking deeper into their data in order to keep ahead of their rivals!”

I could see that my acquaintance was thinking deeply about my words.

“But why do they need to know my religion?” he then asked? “That’s none of their business!”

Feeling exasperated by now, I mentioned how the census (which takes place all over Europe) is designed to formulate policy and give us an idea as to how many people who do A and B require C. However, not wanting to get involved in a debate on religion, I told him of how in the lead up to the 2011 UK census, a campaign was run to place Heavy Metal as a religion. This campaign was relatively successful and Heavy Metal now has more members than other “official” religions including Druidism and Scientology.

I saw him yesterday in the café again but decided I’d get a take away rather than sit down.
As for the tin foil hat? I suppose that it does seem to suit him!

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