Here’s what happens when a data scientist goes to Disney World

John Foreman at MailChimp HQ. Source: Derrick Harris

A couple weeks ago, Mailchimp chief data scientist John Foreman wrote a guest post for Gigaom before leaving on a family trip to Disney World. He described the Magic Bands that arrived in the mail for his family and the possibilities that arise when we let companies — ranging from mega corporations like Disney to obscure app vendors — track our locations in the physical world. This week, Foreman came on the Structure Show podcast to talk about whether the trip lived up to his analytic expectations and if it changed his mind about privacy.

Here are some of the highlights from that interview, but if you’re interested in privacy and the data science behind it — or just funny stories from Disney World — you’ll want to hear the whole thing.

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Magic Bands: For the micromanager in all of us

“You become a slave to your app. So instead of waiting in horrible lines, you’re rearranging your whole schedule,” Foreman said, describing the process of using Disney’s Magic Band app to plan your time at the park. “If you enjoy filing taxes or doing paperwork, then Disney is for you, because you spend your whole time like in a calendar app managing your schedule.”

Personalization via animatronic mouse head

“My kids rode Pirates of the Caribbean like seven times … So we got in line the third day to see Mickey … And you go in the room with Mickey and it’s an actor in a suit, but then Mickey has an animatronic head, so Mickey’s mouth moves and the audio that’s coming out is not from the actor. … Based on the kids in line, whenever a kid would walk up to Mickey, Mickey would say something contextually appropriate for that kid,” Foreman explained.

He continued: “When my two kids walked up, he immediately started talking about pirates. … Why? Probably because they can see that come up — like these people that you’re about to take the photo with, they freaking love Pirates. … That’s like an example of this personalized experience that Disney has been promising of, ‘Hey, we’re gonna track you, but we’re gonna track you so we can give you a personalized experience.’ They are able to deliver on what they’re selling.”

John Foreman at MailChimp HQ. Source: Derrick Harris

John Foreman at MailChimp HQ. Source: Derrick Harris

Can an antenna keep Busch Gardens in its place?

One thing Foreman explained in his post was the fact that Magic Bands contain a long-range antenna as well as a short-range RFID chip. Because they’re users’ room keys, meal tickets, credit cards and more while in the park — and they’re personalized — losing them is a bad idea. So it’s best to keep them on; good thing they’re comfortable and attractive, too.

“I kept wondering about not taking it off, because one of the stated purposes of the band is trying to get people to spend more time at Disney while they’re on their Disney vacation, as opposed to visiting rival parks like Universal Studios or Busch gardens or any of these things,” Foreman theorized during the podcast. “… What’s to stop Disney from somehow … procuring various real estate along the routes to these other parks or around these parks … potentially tracking my location as I visit rival parks to understand, ‘Hey, here’s not only how John spends his time at Disney. When he’s not at Disney, here’s where he goes, such that we can understand what the competing interests are and then understand how we might better keep him in the park on those days where he went and rode those other rides.'”

Foreman's Magic Band

Foreman’s Magic Band

Of course tracking is bad. Except when Disney’s doing it

“One of my friends read the [Gigaom] article and she commented, ‘Oh, man, this is so creepy. I wanna give up all my electronics at this point. Except for my iPhone, because I have to have that.’ … I think there’s a sense of we want to have our cake and eat it too, and Disney has really cracked the code on how this works,” Foreman said. “… You don’t have to do the [Magic] bands. You could just enter with a normal ticket. But I looked around, and everyone I saw was using this stuff, and they tell you right up front they’re tracking you. It’s just because everyone knows, ‘This is gonna be awesome.’ And I think people also know, OK, the tracking potentially sort of starts and stops at the parks.”

Later, Foreman noted, “I think people have a lot of goodwill toward Disney from all these great childhood memories, so they’re willing to cut them a lot of slack. They’re certainly not the NSA.”

Foreman (center) at Structure Europe 2013.

Foreman (center) at Structure Europe 2013.

So, tracking consumers is OK? Or it isn’t?

The interview wasn’t just about Disney, though, because what it’s doing with Magic Bands extends into other parts of our consumers live, too. Most notably, many of our favorite smartphone apps collect lots of data about what we do and where we go.

“It’s one of those things that’s both exciting and nauseating simultaneously. No one is stopping using their smartphones. We all continue to install these apps … I’m willing to make that tradeoff, and I think a lot of people are willing to make that tradeoff,” Foreman said. “So I guess the scary part then is like, are we really OK with it, or are we … not good as humans at judging really what we’re giving up yet?

structuredata2014_300x200_editpost2“What we are really good at is understanding stories. So what might happen is we get one or two really bad examples of where this tradeoff has gone awry and where people’s data has been collected and used for evil. And if that happens enough, then I think we’ll actually begin to understand this tradeoff a lot more.”

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