Making ‘Big Data’ work for customers

The Clover food truck made a stop on the Greenway in April.
Lane Turner/Globe staff
The Clover food truck made a stop on the Greenway in April.

‘Big Data” is one of the top buzz-phrases in business — particularly in the high-tech industry — but it is very real and growing. The thirst for consumer information can make businesses smarter, but sometimes the process of applying all that data goes awry. Each week seems to bring a new revelation of a company using its customers as guinea pigs to gather analytic information that perhaps a fifth-grader could have provided. But consumers shouldn’t blame the mere fact of data collection. After all, there are no bad data, only bad companies that use information in manipulative or misleading ways.

The most recent bad example comes from the online dating site OKCupid, which revealed that it experimented with its users and in one instance arbitrarily matched people who were not compatible, telling the would-be partners that the opposite was true. In explaining this absurd-bordering-on-abusive test, the company said it only wanted to explore the power of suggestion — that is, whether vulnerable people might accept even an incompatible partner if a dating site put them together. In the process, OKCupid betrayed its customers.

In contrast, more businesses are using data collection in ways that help customers on their own terms. A key example is local restaurant entrepreneur Ayr Muir, who founded Clover Food Lab in 2008. Clover is known for its six food trucks and five brick-and-mortar restaurants, and Muir himself made news last year for conscientiously closing down his business after a salmonella outbreak.


Muir is something of a data fiend, as an article in the Globe Magazine shows. He and his team analyze all types of information: wait times, return customers, refrigerator temperatures. He even has metrics on word-of-mouth referrals. (There’s a 40 percent chance a Clover customer has told 10 or more people about the fast-food restaurant.)

This sounds like smart data, the type of information more businesses should deploy to make customers happier — as long as Clover resists the temptation to test the “power of suggestion” by serving something awful.