I started writing this post a few days ago and I may actually be behind the curve, just look at the success of Splunk's IPO in recent days and even the BBC featured a story on data (that actually features Splunk), not to mention Tim Berners-Lee was on about it, but, in the words of Mastermind presenters everywhere: "I've started so I'll finish."
Obviously, I'm not the first to say it (though I'm not sure 2012 will see any significant change as some have predicted) but a big growth area in tech in the near future will be data. There's already plenty of companies working in the sector, but they're mainly aimed at helping business better understand things like sales data, demand and customer profiling. What we're going to see is a growth in personal data collection, analysis and manipulation.
If you're interested in personal data tracking, you may have heard of Nicholas Felton (I found him through Jason Kottke), who produces a beautiful personal annual report each year (as of 2005 at least). Felton has even co-authored a site called Daytum to allow you to collect and track everyday data. I'm a fan of tracking data, that's why I built some tools into Write Here to allow you to track your progress (here's my profile page for example), for which I have to credit Buster Benson and his site, 750words.com, as inspiration.
Real deep collection and analysis is already being done by the outliers, the few who are prepared to make the effort to collect this data manually, but it'll go mainstream once the collection is more automated and when companies offer services that add value to this data. The FT reported last year about people such as Michael Galpert, an internet entrepreneur who collects data to 'optimise physical and mental performance.' There's a great article over the the NY Times from 2010 and a website dedicated to self quantification.
The problem with these 'self quantifiers' is that it often requires a lot of manual entry and analysis to get any benefit, and people are lazy. But devices to streamline this collection already exist (in the FT article it talks of scales that upload weight and body mass data, sleep information from a headband and more) and collection and tracking is going to be added to a lot more things in the coming years. We already have energy monitors, for example, to track our power usage at home, and GPS tracking apps and watches so you can check out your fitness routine. That is just the tip of the iceberg (I know, a poor choice of word considering we're so close to the Titanic centenary).
Most could be collected by adapting existing devices (e.g. watches to track your steps, distances, locations, heart rate, temperature; scales for weight, etc) and use of existing data sets (for example, you financial records from banks) could make up a significant part.
Why would you want to track this data? My bank already offers tracking of my spending habits to show where my money goes based on categories, which is great if I'm looking to save money or spot problems. For example, before signing up for a monthly DVD rental service I could see what my average spend per month on DVDs is to see if it's worth it.
Aside from financial health, what about actual physical health? Monitoring your pulse, temperature, urine content, weight, breath, nutrient levels, sleep patterns and numerous other things could help spot problems long before they become serious. They could also be used to help you live longer, minimise illness, increase intelligence (some have claimed they can do it), increase fertility, whatever. It could lead to very personlised treatments, even tailored drugs.
Does that interest you? No? What if everyone else is doing it, would you need to keep up? How about analysing your route to work, your work methods and your leisure time to suggest where efficiencies could be made? How about analysing how your child learns to tailor a syllabus to them and not just what the rest of the class are doing? What about analysing your grocery shop and suggesting products in sizes or brands that offered better value or had better reviews? There's a million things, most of which haven't been thought of yet.
It's all very well collecting the data, but then you'll need to understand it, and that's where the data companies come in, offering packages to watch your health and send you updates and alerts, tracking your progress on a task and issuing a pat on the back (maybe a points scheme, making life a game, i.e. Foursquare), suggesting small tweaks and modifications to your diet, your daily schedule or your thinking.
The data that keeps making headlines because companies are tracking it may soon be working for us, not just advertisers, which is when we're going to want it back.