Sunday, April 7, 2013

Geodemographic Systems

Goss, Jon. 1995. "'We know who you are and we know where you live': The instrumental rationality of geodemographic systems."

            As I was reading this article I could not stop coming up with examples of geodemographics and the problems Goss discusses; so rather than a summary, I’m going to give some definitions, digestible examples, and make a few connections based on our reading this semester.
            Geodemographics is a form of statistical analysis of a person and his/her behaviors based on that person’s identity/demographic and location/geography. Marketers can use this information to identify new markets or develop better marketing strategies for existing markets.
            This article reminds me of the methodology section of Christine Pawley’s article "Seeking 'Significance:' Actual Readers, Specific Reading Communities," where she explains that with the invention of statistics people began self-identifying using statistical terms: married, white, female, graduate education, democrat. This article explains how geodemographics takes those expected and perhaps obvious statistical categories and creates models by comparing and cross-referencing many databases of information to create highly customizable marketing strategies.
            Some of the information these massive data gatherers collect is information we as individuals freely give, but gets aggregated into a database without our knowledge or consent; for example, we might sign up for a frequent-shopper card to get discounts, but then our entire shopping history can be tracked, which provides the retailer information about us and the potential preferences of our demographic. This data gathering is a form of surveillance; therefore privacy is at the center of the geodemographic ethical debate.
            Another problem is with the methods or parameters set by geographers and statisticians to create geographical information system (GIS) models. Goss explains that, “The related ecological fallacy is perhaps the most serious technical problem affecting spatial analysis in GIS. This refers to the erroneous assumption that patterns or relationships between data observed at an aggregate level of analysis also apply to data at the level of the individual (or to any lower level of aggregation” (p. 181). Patterns that seem obvious using GIS might be incorrect because of the “arbitrary nature of statistical boundaries.” 

Bachelor's degree distribution in the United States
http://2.bp.blogspot.com/-CgIB779P1_g/T7PfNB4sN1I/AAAAAAAAACU/YQrG9juPOM4/s1600/collegedegreemap.jpg

In this map you can see the concentration of people with bachelor's degrees by county. The counties that include Washington, DC; Bloomington, IN; San Francisco, CA; Boulder, CO; Aspen, CO; and Nashville, TN all have high concentrations of degreed individuals. That's pretty unsurprising. However, it is worth noting that those counties are small. What is more interesting is the western states with very large counties. For example, you can see in Arizona that Maricopa and Coconino counties have a slightly above average concentration of individuals with bachelor's degrees. But the space on the map does not represent individuals. And according to the US Census Bureau, Coconino County only has a population of 134,500. These is important information we are missing because of the way the geographer chose to apportion the map and the information not captured or communicated.
            In much the same way that people began identifying themselves using statistical terminology, the problem with geodemographics is that the same thing will likely happen because of how products are marketed and information is distributed. Part of the danger of this form of data gathering and marketing is that individuals will begin to view their needs and desires based on the geodemographic system information available to them (e.g. family planning decisions).
            This system is a technology that would not be possible without the computational power available today and the digital sharing of information. It is a digital technology that is used to market digital and analog formats. And it can clearly impact larger social structures as well.

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