Doing data differently

Doing data differently

Facebook and the abuse of personal data for political campaigning are in the news. This has been a scandal waiting to happen. In 2011 Livework saw the risk and helped Channel 4 do data differently.

Our online data trails are important

The world is waking up to the implications of the fact that, as internet users, we leave a trail of personal data online. Facebook, Cambridge Analytica, The Trump Campaign, Russia – suddenly it’s no longer ok to turn a blind eye and pretend that our privacy is not being abused, or that it is not all that serious.

Many of us have known that our online data was being used to target us with advertising for a long time. We have all been followed around the internet by the shoes that we chose not to buy. But whilst it can feel spooky it doesn’t seem life-threatening. However, when we learn that these techniques have been used to target political messages to individuals and to influence world-changing events such as Brexit or the US presidential elections, it stops being a little spooky and becomes scary. When we understand the depth of the insights into our psychology that this data enables, it becomes frightening.

Power and responsibility

The trouble is, we’ve all done a deal with these free services. Not just Facebook and Google, but anything we use online. Things need to be paid for and if we don’t pay for them, then the use of our data and sale of our eyeballs are likely to be the route to monetisation. It’s not as if this is new, TV has always sold access to viewers and even public space is sold to advertisers.

So the issue we are responding to is not advertising or even political messages. The issue is the granularity of the data, the depth of personalisation and the power dynamic behind the whole thing. The ability to manipulate and control takes it too far.


In Spring 2018, more and more exposes are bringing to light that use of personal data to this extreme has stepped over a line – evidenced in column inches and Facebook share price. But data use is baked into the business model of social media and most digital content services. Is it possible to do data differently? Are there ways to stay the right side of the line?

Channel 4 Does it differently

Back in 2011 Channel 4 – the UK’s independent public TV broadcaster – and Livework thought so. Channel 4 is a unique public broadcaster in that it is independent and advertising funded. In 2011 C4 anticipated a rapid switch in viewing from over the air to online streaming and catch-up services. They began to invest in audience data capabilities. C4 needed to do this, as the better the data they have about their viewers, the more they can offer their customers – the advertisers – the ability to target viewers and get more for bang for their pounds. The better the targeting, the more C4 can charge for their advertising slots. This is important to us viewers, as it means more money for better programmes. And Channel 4 make great telly.

Not so simple. Channel 4, as a publicly licensed broadcaster, with an independently spirited but socially responsible brand, has a responsibility to its audience. As they invested in audience data tech Channel 4 also realised that they must use it with respect for viewer privacy. The C4 data and insights team asked Livework to help them develop a viewer promise. We called it ‘Doing Data Differently”.

To develop this promise we talked to viewers about their data and about what they valued from their broadcaster. We found that people generally just wanted to access their shows quickly (and ideally without the adverts). However, we also learn that sometimes the ads are interesting if they are creative or relevant. So there was a value in having ads that are selected for you. We also learnt that people do value personalisation in the recommendations that are made to them and the convenience that can come with being recognised on the platform.

Viewer promise principles

  • Purpose – Channel 4 decided to only ask for personal information when it enabled them to give something to the viewer as well as the advertiser. There had to be a purpose behind the questions. So asking for your age was to connect you to your generation and the things they were watching. Asking your name was to be able to treat you as more than just a number.
  • Control – Whilst viewers are willing to accept that data will be held about them, they also should be able to control that data. Channel 4 guaranteed that viewers would be able to opt out, view and delete any data held on them – easily.
  • Transparent – Finally we knew people hated the tricks that can be played to capture data. The pre-ticked checkboxes and the long legalistic terms and conditions. Channel 4 promised to be transparent about what data was being collected and why.

The viewer promise we developed is displayed on the Channel 4 website here

Shout it proudly

Finally, we recommended that Channel 4 should be noisy about this data policy – it should be something that they talk about. We suggested that they should use their big brand presenters to front this communication. So comedian, Alan Carr and newsreader, Jon Snow did just that – and you can see it here:



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Anne van Lieren

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