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New site reveals what big data knows – and what it doesn’t

With more information available on customers than ever before, businesses are now expected to have a much better idea of who they are aiming at when they embark on activities such as marketing, using their data to more accurately target individuals.

Having access to the right details will therefore be essential to the success of these operations – and this goes a long way beyond traditional customer profiles that offer firms just basic details. Information from demographic details on an individual to past purchasing and browsing behavior can all help enterprises build up a picture of their customers that can be used to ensure they are offering a personalized service.

However, for many firms, this information is still sourced from traditional methods such as data brokers. Even though the trading of information via these enterprises is common practice, many people may still be surprised at the level of detail that businesses can obtain from this. This is one of the reasons a new website has launched that aims to show users exactly what companies know about them.

AboutTheData.com, from data provider Acxiom, allows users to input a few key details about themselves and receive a snapshot of the personal information about them that is frequently sold to enterprises such as retailers in order for them to better target promotions, CNN Money reports.

The firm claims to hold details on more than 190 million consumers that could be useful to organizations looking to run big data analytics. This includes information ranging from education level and income to ethnicity and political views.

But the site also reveals the limitations of many of these information exchanges. According to Acxiom, up to 30 percent of a person's profile may be wrong, as it is compiled from a variety of sources, including public records and outdated surveys.

CNN Money writer Melanie Hicken noted, for instance, that while the database correctly knew her gender (female) and age (26), it also thought she had two children aged 14 and 17 – a biological impossibility.

This should therefore act as a warning to companies when they are working with data sourced from third parties, as no matter how accurate it claims to be, the algorithms used to determine key data points may not be reliable.

Organizations also needed to be mindful of the ethics involved when using data they have not gathered directly, as many consumers may be uneasy if they do not know their information is being traded and used for a wide range of purposes.

Susan Grant, director of consumer protection at the Consumer Federation of America, told CNN Money: "It's gotten to the point where the big data machine is churning out profiles of consumers, which not only may or may not be accurate, but might be used for purposes that the individuals never imagined or consented to." 

This means businesses must tread carefully when they are relying on these types of personal details to guide their strategy. While they can be reasonably confident of the accuracy of information if they are using databases they have compiled themselves, based on direct analysis of their own customers, this may not be true if they are buying information in bulk for use in their data analytics activities.