Smile Politely

Big Data is watching you

We all waste time at work. Procrastination is inherent to the human condition: unavoidable and constant, like a mind-cousin of the sweet embrace of death. Whether it be the ancient engineers who wrote their version of “Kilroy Was Here” while working on the pyramids or me watching videos online, mankind seeks to take a break from work by wasting time.

But what has for centuries been the employee’s blessing has been the manager’s curse. The break which benefits morale degrades efficiency. Ah, efficiency — that terrible word. The bane of slackers everywhere!

But fear not, you employees (or freelancers) who wish to improve efficiency, for Datify is here.

Founded by U of I Seniors Ashu Katyal (Computer Science) and Eric Yates (Mechanical Engineering), Datify seeks to improve efficiency in employees through the use of a proprietary algorithm and years of case studies. In short, they want to make you a better employee by analyzing data.

I met with the Datify team (now consisting of Katyal, Yates, and Shaan Bhakta, a U of I freshman who acts as the project’s business liaison) at a local cafe at 19:00 hours on a Friday. Needless to say, I was burnt out from a week of work and felt more like a cocktail than tea, but tea it was, meet I did, and publish I will.

Despite the evening time, the three young men were awake and vibrant (I, too, recall the energy of youth!) and met me with enthusiastic handshakes and what seemed to be genuine greetings. I sat down with them and got right to work.

“Tell me about your company,” I said.

“You’ve seen the website?” Katyal asked.

“Yes, I have.”

He held his arms open and shrugged as if to say, “well there you go.” My further, more direct questions were answered well enough and with a rehearsed eloquence that mainly made me wonder how much time had been spent preparing for my interview.

As it is, Datify is a company which is attempting to market the DataBox, a small device which will (hopefully) help people to increase their efficiency and productivity at their tech jobs. The DataBox simply plugs into a Wi-Fi router using a standard Ethernet cable, collects information about the work habits of the router’s users, and then suggests ways for the users to increase their efficiency. At least, that’s the hope; Datify has yet to be beta-tested on a large scale.

What they lack in actual beta-testing, Datify makes up for in company feedback, having spoken to 31 different small businesses (including but clearly not limited to Pixo, Shatterglass Studios, Studio 109, Volition, and ATLAS). They’ve developed their software and their business model with feedback and encouragement received from these companies.

Ironically, Datify only has one data point publicly available: the usage of their software to help Katyal’s roommate make more money. According to the company’s guest blog on LeanStart: “She works at a pawn shop, cleans a bank and sells products online. The DataBox showed her web usage while selling products online and we determined that she would make more money from selling products online than working in the bank (and she loves selling online much more than the bank too!).”

Exactly how the DataBox led to this conclusion isn’t public information (as their algorithm is super-Secret-Squirrel intellectual property). And while I personally question whether this case study is the type the startup should use to market their product to companies (as opposed, to, say, freelancers), it seems to be working well enough.

Datify promises that their initial intent is not necessarily to provide middle-managers with a new tool to micromanage their employees. On the contrary, they believe their tool will empower employees to become more self-reliant, allowing them to police their own internet and time usage. Eventually, the Datify online dashboard will have a feature called “Nudge” to help the users set small goals in addition to long-term planning for improving efficiency. Theoretically, this would also relieve managers of the need to keep an eye on employees to ensure that they stay on task.

Datify states that they are all about security and privacy, and that their current model doesn’t even allow for managers to easily view a subordinate’s internet usage through their software. The employee would log into the Datify website to view his/her own internet usage patterns and would receive suggestions for how to optimize their time usage to become better employees. In order for a manager to view anything collected by Datify about an employee’s online behavior (assuming that the company in question doesn’t already collect such information), the manager would have to gain permission from the employee to log in to the employee’s account (or maybe just strongly suggest that it is in the employee’s best interest to show their account to their manager).

The members of Datify are, of course, ever the opportunists in their quest to become the next Big Data company, and they admitted that they would be willing to change this feature to allow managers to view subordinates’ information if a company really required it.

But harvesting employee internet usage data is just the first step in the plan. The end goal is to use this technology as the basis for making people’s entire lives more efficient. Just as an employee’s internet patterns can be fed through the algorithm in order to get suggestions for how to make him/her more efficient, eventually a person’s entire daily routine could be fed through the algorithm (in real time, no less) in order to help them become more efficient.

According to the team, their biggest opposition so far has been small-minded folk around U of I. While several professors and some entrepreneurs at U of I as well as most of the entrepreneurs they’ve met around Chicago’s 1871 (a startup incubator) have all been very supportive of their dreams, Datify’s members have, in general, found it difficult to get big backers around UIUC. In the end, they’ve come to the conclusion that perhaps, despite the great minds at work around U of I, most people here simply can’t see the potential their company currently has.

With luck, Datify could become the next big contender in the tech industry to profit from our data, but perhaps unlike other companies, not by turning the user into a product for the marketing industry.

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