Personalisation, privacy and Trinity’s battle to empower the user

29 Jun 2015

Trinity College scientists and legal experts are discussing ways to finally let the end user in on the personalisation of modern software, with tailored, online advertising “just scratching the surface”.

Members of Trinity and SFI’s ADAPT centre are working to do two entirely different, but ultimately related things.

Firstly, they want to let end users understand what it is that software companies want from them, what information is stored up and what it is used for.

Secondly, they want to provide far more enhanced options for user personalisation, beyond things as basic as tailored advertising.

Tough crowd

Considering the growing weariness of users towards companies like Google and Facebook amid a constant land-grab of end-user data, ‘personalisation’ is hardly something the public will easily embrace.

And that, it seems, is why UMAP 2015 is on this week in Trinity, drawing on expertise from stakeholders throughout the industry.

“Personalisation can be really useful for users. Really, really useful,” says Owen Conlan, assistant professor in computer science at Trinity.

“But users have no idea what’s going on.”

Innovative technologies such as personalisation, in which Trinity researchers are world leaders, present the opportunity for each piece of content and every interaction offered to a user to be tailored to their individual needs.

To do this, highly-advanced algorithms are employed to model those user needs.

The what, when and why

This presents a significant issue – what happens when the algorithm gets it wrong? The personalisation systems are highly advanced, so it can be difficult for users to diagnose what is going on.

For example, why does Facebook present posts in the way it does so that you see some and not others from your networks? Do you know what Facebook wants, why, and what it means?

“What we’re trying to achieve is to unlock that box, trying to get a transparent way for companies to show what they are doing. What data they are getting and how they are using their data.”

Currently termed ‘Privacy Paradigm’, the goals of the system closely complement the work of Trinity and ADAPT’s computer scientists, who are seeking to build personalised visualisations that show users not only what a system has modelled about them, but give the same users simple-to-use controls that can alter and adjust those models.

The more we know, the more we can achieve

This form of explorative personalisation allows users to reflect on what they are doing, and to identify missed opportunities.

Conlan warns that, without embracing the public, those upon whom modern communications are as much reliant as they are servicing, swathes could simply walk away from some potentially brilliant services.

“It’s all about getting humans more in the loop,” he says.

“It used to be, ‘Oh hey… we’ve modelled this about you, here’s some content we think will makes sense’. Whereas now it’s more about ensuring the users can see that model, understand and reflect on it and inject their own user experience.

“Advertising is just scratching the surface.”

Trinity College image, via Shutterstock

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic