Usually when a concept hits the popular press, it’s time to look for the next new thing. For the past two weeks the term Meta-Data has been all over the news thanks to a disclosure of a National Security Agency (NSA) program to capture data about millions of telephone calls. Not the actual phone calls, as President Obama and others were quick to point out, but data about the phone calls such as the time of the call, the number called, the duration etc. Whether you consider these items to be data or meta-data – data about data- may correlate with whether you think this is government overreach and a breach of privacy or a prudent use of technology to prevent terrorism. In either case the fact that there was a national conversation about the concept of meta-data says something about how far into the Information Age we’ve come. As Gail Collins in her New York Times column pointed out, it can hardly be surprising that this is going on: “After all, we live in a world where you can e-mail your husband about buying new kitchen curtains and then magically receive an online ad from a drapery company.”
One can legitimately ask if dispensing unsolicited investment advice in this manner is something to be thinking about. I’m guessing there aren’t many investment company compliance officers eager to hear that proposal. And yet there are a lot of financial services brand awareness messages that are already being given a treatment somewhat similar to the drapery ads. Of course the importance of meta-data is in itself nothing new. What’s new is to some extent the ability to avoid painstaking methods of capturing it and leveraging the consequent abundance of descriptive context to harness the power of the underlying data. Some of the tools being used to do this are also new. It remains to be seen if the “old” data problems (old because they’ve been around, not because they no longer exist) will be tackled as a result of firms trying to seize opportunities presented by the application of Big Data and Predictive Analytics. There are a number of technology firms doing work in this area and judging from what they’re saying this may be one case where the hype in the popular press is not a case of shooting behind the passing train.