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November 2014

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You read it here first: ‘crowdshaping' is about to change the world. David Mattin reports on a new phenomenon that could transform the way we live our lives

People Power: Crowdshaping

by David Mattin, Head of Trends & Insights

On one evening at this year's SXSW Festival in Austin, Texas, there was an intriguing, hybrid event: half electronic dance party, half experiment. Upon arrival at the party, attendees were equipped with a bracelet that measured key physiological metrics: movement, heart rate, galvanic skin response and more. The only rule of this experiment? Don't take off the bracelet.

The event's sponsor, Pepsi, called the result a "bioreactive concert". In fact, it was an early example of an emerging technology trend that is set to reshape our cities, transform retail and multiple other industries, revolutionise our media and change how we live.

Sounds far-fetched? To understand why these claims make sense, it pays to take a brief trip back to 2006, when another emerging trend was making headlines.

In the June 2006 edition of Wired magazine, editor Jeff Howe introduced the world to a term he'd recently coined: crowdsourcing. Today's connected world, said Howe, offered new possibilities for drawing on the opinions, knowledge, services and creative input of others — no matter where they were, and potentially in their millions. The implications, he argued, were vast: a business revolution was in its infancy.

Eight years on, the list of brands that have dabbled with — or plunged headlong into — crowdsourcing is near endless. This year, for example, crisps brand Walkers has been busy crowdsourcing new flavours via its online Do Us A Flavour campaign. (Ranch Raccoon, Cheesy Beans On Toast and Chip Shop Chicken Curry are three of the finalists.) As for crowdsourcing's impact beyond business: why not start by looking up the term on Wikipedia, the world's largest crowdsourced repository of knowledge?

But despite crowdsourcing's unchecked rise, it has great — and fairly obvious — limitations. First, crowdsourcing requires the active participation of others, and that's not always easy to find. Second, crowdsourcing is vulnerable to reporting errors, particularly when it comes to certain kinds of input. Thousands of consumers may tell you, for example, they want Ranch Raccoon flavour crisps, but we all know that what people say about their preferences, feelings and future behaviour does not always align with the truth.

Today, though, those limitations are about to be overcome, via a powerful new way to tap input from the crowd. This method is not about asking others to contribute, but rather about aggregating vast oceans of data. I call the method crowdshaping: the 2014-born child of crowdsourcing. And it can already be seen at work in arenas as diverse as a SXSW party, African road systems, Arsenal football stadium and big brand retail spaces.

So what, exactly, is crowdshaping? In essence, it means using personal data drawn from the people inside a defined physical area to shape and reshape — often in real-time — a product or service that those people use.

At the IBM Smarter Cities Technology Centre in Dublin, current work on the use of data to reshape city road systems embodies key aspects of this revolutionary new technique. In early 2013, for example, researchers at the centre set about a mass of mobile phone data: 2.5 billion call records from five million mobile phone users in Ivory Coast. (The data was anonymised before release — and more about privacy issues later.) The idea was to suggest changes that would improve public transport.

"When we look at this data, we can see how people are moving around the roads and what the congestion points are," says IBM senior researcher Francesco Calabrese. "We can see the classic traffic peaks at the start and end of the working day, so we can build reliable predictions of, say, how many people will be in the central business district at a certain time.

"We built a powerful computer model that can analyse billions of data points. And that led us to be able to identify adjustments — changed bus routes and schedules — that would cut average travel time by ten per cent."

If — or when — these changes are implemented, the Ivory Coast would become host to the world's first crowdshaped road system. That is, a road system intelligently reshaped via insight drawn from the aggregated data of its users. Now, the team is working on a similar project for the city of Dublin, using mobile phone GPS data from buses.

But the real power of crowdshaping for cities will be unlocked, says Calabrese, when data can be used to shape services in real-time. "Right now, this is about using historical data to build models and draw insights," he explains. "But in 30 years' time, we may have systems in place that can process billions of data points as they are received, and make intelligent changes to public transport routes and schedules on a minute-by-minute basis. That form of crowdshaping would be orders of magnitude more powerful."

And it could be applied across other city services, too. Crowdshaped police patrol routes? Crowdshaped health provision? Via this emerging trend, our cities are set to get a whole lot smarter.But crowdshaping's implications will stretch way beyond smarter cities. And crowdshaping is already happening in real time.

Back to that SXSW party experiment. The bracelet worn by attendees is called Lightwave, and it's the creation of Silicon Valley technologist and DJ Rana June. At the party, physiological data drawn from each attendee was used to shape the experience that unfolded in the room. When the temperature of the crowd reached a set point, for example, the crowd 'unlocked' a round of drinks. Meanwhile, visible leaderboards rated individual dancers for energy, and, during a 'boys vs girls dance-off', both teams competed to see who could dance the most energetically.

"This is really about increasing audience joy and emotional engagement," says June. "Speaking as a performer, when an audience is wearing Lightwave you have a whole new palette to work with. When are the crowd excited? When are they disengaging?"

But June says her invention could transform all kinds of live experiences. In May, she took Lightwave bracelets to the Arsenal football stadium in London, where 120 amateur players wore the bracelets during games. "Big screens showed all their biometrics," she says. "You saw the peak in heart rate just before a player took a shot on goal. For an audience at a live sports event, it could be a whole new layer of content."

June imagines a time when audiences for live TV — millions sitting in their homes all over the US or UK — could wear a device that syncs data on their emotional engagement back to the broadcaster. Live TV could be directed on the fly, according to what the data is showing: crowdshaped television.

If the implications for live and broadcast media are great, so too are those for brands and businesses of other kinds. After all, plenty of us are already walking around with a sensor-laden device — our smartphone — that is host to an ocean of data about our movements, tastes, preferences and interests.

How long until retailers, for example, start to employ in-store technology that can aggregate and use that data to reshape the experience served to shoppers? Crowdshaped advertising on digital screens? Crowdshaped in-store music? In fact, you could soon crowdshape the music at your next party if a prototype called Chüne — a small, smart jukebox made by English design firm Clearleft — comes to market. Chüne uses NFC technology to strip music playlists out of the smartphones of those nearby, and then plays a music selection that is an aggregation of the preferences of those close to it. Right now, users must download an app and tap their phone against Chüne to become part of the aggregation, but Chüne's makers imagine a time when their product can find its own way into the phone of anyone nearby.

If you're like most people, a single word perhaps came to mind when you read that: privacy. But evidence suggests that consumers are growing accustomed to a world in which data is a shared resource: according to a 2014 IBM study, 36 per cent of consumers are now happy to share their location with retailers via GPS — almost double the number who were in 2013.

Besides, if you think that the examples of crowdshaping you've read about so far smack of a Brave New World, just look a little further ahead. What happens when the data being used to crowdshape products and services is not simple location data or physiological metrics, but human emotion itself?

Emotient is a US company that specialises in emotion recognition software. Advances in machine learning and camera resolution means their software can now reliably discern a range of seven human emotions — including joy, disgust, surprise and anger — by analysing footage of human faces taken by ordinary USB cameras.

Today, Procter & Gamble are already using Emotient technology in market research settings. But Emotient is also working with a well-known fast food chain, experimenting with use of emotion recognition tech in restaurants to assess customer satisfaction in real-time. It's all about, says Emotient CEO Ken Denman, "giving innovators and service providers better data, faster, on what people like and what they don't. We think of it as market research 3.0." Yes, that's right: crowdshaped customer service (and more) at your local burger joint.

So, where will you first encounter crowdshaping? At a music concert? Eating a cheeseburger? Waiting to see your GP? Of course, there's another arena ripe for change at the hands of the technique. What about crowdshaped climate control, lighting and refreshments on commercial flights? In a recent experiment, British Airways showcased a 'happiness blanket' that changed colour according to the user's state of relaxation thanks to a headset that measured brainwave activity. So what if, say, sensors were embedded in seats to detect passenger temperature, alertness and other physical metrics? Data shows that most passengers are asleep? Dim the cabin lights and postpone that pass-through with the drinks trolley.

But don't worry, right now your seat is perfectly oblivious to your state, physiological, emotional, or otherwise. If you want another gin and tonic, you're just going to have to ask.