Earlier this week I attended the Duke Library’s Instructional Retreat titled Using Data in the Classroom.  The half-day event hoped to teach the library staff (and others, like myself) all about data – how / where to find it, how to use it, how to visualize it, and all the associated tools for those tasks.

The very first session of the day, co-led by Paolo Mangiafico and Joel Herndon was really interesting.  Paolo’s discussion of what the world of data looks like from 30,000 feet was simultaneously both inspiring and terrifying in it’s breadth and pervasiveness in our daily lives.  The one thing from this talk that really stuck with me was this notion of Data Exhaust.  As consumers in an internet-driven world, we are constantly driving ourselves around on the information super-highway.  But along with that analogy comes another, the constant fume of data exhaust that we are emitting as we are happily chugging away.  Take twitter for example.  That mere 140 character tweet is actually made up of about a hundred lines of code, including things about you, your account, your profile, friends, and potentially your location.  Every time you search for something on the internet, or check in on foursquare, or buy something on amazon, you’re leaving behind a wake of data that is not only mineable, but is potentially extremely valuable.

To search engines and marketing firms, this data exhaust can translate into real dollars.  But to some others, it can be organized into something beautiful.  Take Nicholas Felton, a NYC-based designer and meticulous personal data-keeper.  Each year for the last several years, he’s been keeping extremely detailed notes about his location, eating and drinking habits, interactions with other people, and much more (detail of 2008 report above).  And at the end of each year, he produces the Feltron Annual Report, an increasingly popular design artifact that is not a byproduct, but an actual product of his constant data exhaust.  He just happens to pipe that data exhaust into a useful and trackable location and interpret that data into something beautiful and meaningful.  And to think this started before foursquare and twitter were even a glimmer in their founders’ eyes and the very first iPhone was still years away.  Now Felton has provided that same ability to capture that constant data stream through a web/iphone app called Daytum.

Of course, the flip side of this double-edged sword is that this data exhuast, if mined properly and in the hands of the wrong people, can be potentially dangerous.  A sort-of-funny-but-sort-of-scary version of this is the website Please Rob Me, which, until recently when it was essentially deactivated, was a stream of foursquare (and the like) checkin’s.  Presumably, if you wanted to rob someone, all you’d have to do is wait for that person to check-in somewhere and then you’d know their house is empty (of course, the owners of the site weren’t actually encouraging burglary, just raising awareness of the over-sharing culture).  Similarly, the recent discovery that the iPhone is logging all of your cell-tower connections into a huge database caused quite a privacy-related stir.

I guess the moral of the story is that we at the very least need to be cognizant of our data exhaust.  We are living in an age of sharing and social networking, and personally, I think the net result of that is a very big positive – the amount of information and connections we have now is indeed an enrichment of our lives.  However, it’s important to remain aware that all of that information doesn’t just disappear into thin air either.