Data Wildcatters on the Wild Swiss Range

You want to put your sensor *where*?!!!!!

(image shutterstock) I’ve been watching the news for tidbits which illuminate a thesis I’ve been working up for my book. Today the New York Times provided a doozy: Swiss Cows Send Texts to Announce They’re in Heat. As James Gleick, author of The Information, noted in a Twitter response to me: That’s one heckuva headline.

So what’s my thesis? It starts with one of the key takeaways from Gleick’s book, which is that we are, as individuals and a society, becoming information. That might seem a rather puzzling statement, because one could argue that we’ve always been information, it’s only recently that we’re realizing that fact. So perhaps a better way of putting it is that we’re exploring the previously unmapped world of information. In the 1400s, the physical world was out there, much as it is today (perhaps it had a few more glaciers…). But we hadn’t discovered it, at least, not in any unified fashion. Now that we’ve discovered, named, and declared the outlines of most of the physical world, we are rapidly moving into a new era, one where we are coloring in the most interesting bits of information in our world with what we now call “data.”

As we survey, chart, and claim this new territory, a truth is emerging: when we discover some set of information might be valuable, we turn that information into data. Information is a slippery concept – one that gives Gleick “the willies.” But data? That’s information we can manipulate.

So here’s my thesis:  We create new data wherever we can find value. Put another way: If it’s valuable to know, new data will flow. Not to everyone, of course – as with oil, control of data is power. But the world is hell-bent on finding new data resources that unleash value. We’ve got wildcatters, we’ve got Exxon/Mobiles (think Facebook, Google, Amazon, the NSA, etc.), we’ve got pipes. And we’ve got incredible stories of the things folks will do to unlock the value of data.

Which takes us back to the cows of Switzerland. As the Times’ piece explains, a Swiss research team has created a system, comprised of implanted sensors and radio beacons, that measures a cow’s movement and internal body temperature. It converts these measurements into data, runs the data through an algorithm, and when the resulting computation indicates the cows are in heat, it sends a text message to the rancher. The net result: The rancher has a better chance of getting that cow pregnant (er, that didn’t quite come out right – but you know what I mean).

Net net: a  pregnant cow is a more valuable cow. And to get a cow pregnant more reliably, one needs the data. Previously, that data was buried in a bovine’s unexplored nether regions (literally – the sensor is placed in the cow’s genitals). But given the value that data carries, these Swiss data wildcatters have tapped a new gusher. This data exploration is now happening over and over, in nearly every imaginable corner of our world. We’ve just tapped the tip of this data iceberg, of course; we’re just stepping onto the shores of the New World. We’d be wise to remember that as we move forward.

Author: John Battelle

A founder of NewCo (current CEO), sovrn (Chair), Federated Media, Web 2 Summit, The Industry Standard, Wired. Author, investor, board member (Acxiom, Sovrn, NewCo), bike rider, yoga practitioner.

6 thoughts on “Data Wildcatters on the Wild Swiss Range”

  1. First, well-done, all in all, but especially ‘If it’s valuable to know, new data will flow.’ It’s a wonderful expression that deserves highlighting and re-circulating.
    Your way of distinguishing information from data makes immediate sense: ‘When we discover some set of information might be valuable, we turn that information into data.’ It also generates a corollary – “the most interesting bits of information”, are worth more.
    But we also need to consider the accuracy resulting from the transfer. On the Big Data end of the information spectrum ‘interest’ (hence, value) is extracted algorithmically, a process perpetually plagued with improving its woefully wasteful results.
    On the other data terminus, however, is Small (personal) Data, which deserves attention because it efficiently targets the most accurate information source – the individuals themselves. And within that domain is a specific subset that is (in exactly the way you use the term) clearly ‘interesting’ if measured by keen demand from merchants, and thus valuable. I’m referring to purchasing intent data, and more specifically to the comprehensive quartet – what, which (brands), when and where – that defines a buyer’s aspiration to acquire. Monetizing that data is a challenge I’m in the midst of thinking about, so this is a timely post which inspired this longer than usual comment.
    Of course, a ‘database of intentions’ is a topic you’ve given considerable attention to in the past, identifying the term in your book ‘Search’ and how it fueled Google’s revenue stream. Although that is common knowledge now, it was an insight few had recognized during the time the book exposed it.
    So I imagine you would appreciate how much more valuable such ‘intent’ information if it were controlled by the individuals who originally created, deservedly owned, and thus rightfully profited from it? The added value ( and there is a remarkable amount of it) coming from merchants eager to put such useful data to work in closing sales (since it is inarguably magnitudes more efficient than broadcasting).
    My own efforts are inspired by the recently growing recognition of the Vendor Relationship (VRM) initiative, which advocates a consumer-centric and demand-driven commerce, also appropriately referred to as ‘intentcasting’ to distinguish it from the broadcasting prevalent today. As this market space is both immense and imminent, readers may be interested that succinct overviews of the Personal Data/ VRM market from different perspectives are located (original sources) at Personal Data: The Emergence of a New Asset Class , an informative one-page executive summary from the respected World Economic Forum. Also the main VRM site is at; or the just published and aptly titled book, The Intention Economy: When Customers Take Charge, by the founder of the movement, Doc Searls; or his recent WSJ piece, The Customer as a God – WSJ.
    Nathan Schor

  2. Cows are information? I thought it was antelope that were information? But does the data from the cow inform the rancher? So now the rancher has useful information FROM the data? Thus, the data precedes the information.

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