​Free Apps: the New Currency is Data

by Leslie Lytle, Messenger Staff Writer

“The currency of the time is data,” said David Shipps, laying the groundwork for his talk on “Business Ethics Questions and the Apps on Your Phone.” Currently the Director for the Babson Center for Global Commerce, Shipps’ career as a global executive focused on business development at leading technology companies including IBM, The Weather Channel, and EarthLink.

“Many of the companies I previously worked with now reside on your phone,” Shipps said. He also pointed to the wide spread prevalence of Google Home, which enables users to interact via voice commands with services (i.e., electronic applications) inside and outside the home. Of the 330 million people living in the United States, 130 million homes have a Google Home device.

What is the significance of these omnipresent devices and the applications they deliver?

The Weather Channel uses the location information users provide to determine purchasing patterns based on geography and weather. Snapchat, which enables users to share personalized visual images, uses the data collected to fine-tune advertising. Google Maps knows everywhere users go if the app is installed on their phone.

“Facebook has 5,000 data points that can target ads to you,” Shipps said. Facebook’s patented applications “predict relationships, classify your personality, predict your future, identify your camera, track your routine, and infer your habits.”

Similarly, the ride service Uber relies on data to create what Shipps calls, “the ultimate frictionless experience.” No cash exchanges hands. No words are spoken. Uber knows where customers are, where they want to go, and takes them there. “New York City cabs don’t need to exist,” Shipps observed.

Stressing that, after all, “Businesses are in business to do business,” i.e., “to make a profit,” Shipps invited the audience to ponder two questions. One, what does it mean to make an ethical choice as the CEO of a corporation with respect to the CEO’s obligation to the shareholders? Two, how can corporations be ethical to people who do not understand the technology?

Shipps advised against relying on government oversight to protect tech corporations from taking advantage of users. “There are regulations corporations must abide by,” Shipps acknowledged, “but change is happening too fast.” He pointed to the federal hearings addressing data privacy and disinformation where senators directed questions at Facebook’s Founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg. Some questions demonstrated a complete lack of understanding about what Facebook was.

Asked why IBM purchased The Weather Channel, Shipps replied, “For the data The Weather Channel had.”

Shipps noted the Google Home device’s purchase price had dropped to $30. “Why do they even charge for it?” he asked posing a third question. In fact, Google gave his Google Home device to him free of charge.

Shipps’ talk was sponsored by the Academy for Lifelong Learning, which hosts monthly seminars on topics of current interest.