ESSAY: Data… and the American Dream, Part Three

Read Part One

If I’m not mistaken, the offices of the First Southwest Bank on Navajo Trail Drive constitute one of the largest dedicated bank buildings in southwest Colorado.

The titanic log structure, with its vast, paved parking lot, was originally constructed as a high-end “sports bar” and nightclub by one of the millionaires who’ve come and gone from the Pagosa Springs community over the years. It’s tricky to keep any “high-end” enterprise afloat in Archuleta County… unless you have access to the folks who hand out taxpayer revenues.

After the bar operation went belly up, another adventurous restaurateur took a shot at paying the mortgage — using a slightly different business plan — and also failed to make it work. I presume that First Southwest Bank held the mortgage, and when they couldn’t sell the log fortress following foreclosure, they simply converted it into a bank… a very spacious bank that emulates the multi-million-dollar log cabins hidden amidst the forest surrounding Pagosa Springs.

Our Tuesday luncheon — hosted by the Pagosa Springs Community Development Corporation (CDC) — was held in the bank’s rear conference room, which, back in the day, had served as the restaurant’s banquet room. The casual lunch consisted of hoagie sandwiches (meat or vegetarian), potato chips, coleslaw and brownies, with canned carbonated water as our beverage.

A modest lunch, of which almost none of the 40 meeting participants partook, for some odd reason.

Data Driven Marketing presenter Neil Aldridge, speaking to a group of business leaders at the Community Development Corporation luncheon on June 27, 2017.

We had met, on Tuesday, June 27, to hear data expert Neil Aldridge talk about “cohorts” — and why our local governments might want to cooperate, to the tune of $50,000 or so, in finding out more about which “cohorts” love Pagosa Springs through a data mining system developed by a subsidiary of Equifax named “Data Driven Marketing” or “DDM” for short. The end goal of any taxpayer expenditure on DDM services would be to — somehow — cause more tourists to visit, and enjoy, Pagosa Springs… with the assumption that some of these visitors would eventually buy or built a home here.

More about that problem, later.

Most of our Daily Post readers might recognize the name, Equifax, as one of the large companies that provide “credit scores” to banks and lending institutions. If you are a typical debt-ridden consumer looking to go even deeper into debt, the Equifax website can offer you, for example, this kind of service:

Equifax wants to help you protect your personal financial information.

If you are a Business, however, looking for more customers, or “higher class” customers with more money, you might visit this part of the Equifax website:

In this part of the website, Equifax wants to sell your personal information to businesses, so they can do a better job of extracting money from your pocket.

The website doesn’t stop there, however. There’s also a section aimed at “Government.”

This portion of the website is aimed at helping governments prevent the theft of taxpayer revenues. Such thievery is repugnant when the thief is an individual… but maybe less offensive when the thief is a corporation?

The discussion on Tuesday was aimed mainly at business owners and government officials. I recognized most of the people in the room as the “movers and shakers” of Pagosa Springs — a certain segment of the Archuleta County population: the employers.

Several other “cohorts” were missing from the room, and did not hear Mr. Aldridge make the case for spending thousands of dollars on his company’s services in hopes of making Pagosa Springs’ employers and bankers more financially successful. The other “cohorts” — who didn’t hear the presentation, but who might end up paying the lion’s share of the Equifax fee — would include: the working class employees, the retirees, the second-home owners, the tourists, the ranchers.

The homeless were likewise not represented.

As we learned during the hour-long presentation, Mr. Aldridge’s subsidiary, DDM, has access to certain types of data, courtesy of Equifax and several other large companies and organizations willing to freely share our personal information. (He did not identify those other organizations specifically.) Like so many types of organizations — the CIA, Google, Walmart, Amazon, Citibank, and VISA, for example, and perhaps the Russian government — Equifax knows a bit about how we spend our money and how much money we spend, as well as other details about our personal lives.

We are listening to Mr. Aldridge make his case:

“What happens in my world, is that we find different groups of people with different reasons for loving a particular thing, and we talk to them in a way that resonates with them — they feel like we are talking with them personally, like we’ve really connected with them, that we understand what they are looking for. And so each individual group starts to grow…

“Really, we are experts in economic capacity. We know how many dollars are in someone’s pocket…”

And the amount that is “disposable income.”

Equifax, the parent organization, is dedicated to discovering this information about each and every one of us, so that they can develop accurate credit scores to sell to banks, lending institutions, and other corporations.

But DDM concerns itself with a “fluffier” aspect of my personal information, which is: what “cohort” do I belong to? What group of people spend their money and time in much the same way I spend my money and time? What cohort uses the same digital devices I use, and watches the same TV channels? Drives the same type of car? Buys the same type of shoes? Eats at the same type of restaurant? Drinks the same type of alcoholic beverage?

Vacations in the same type of rural town?

Apparently, DDM can identify my personal “cohort” if they know my name and address. That’s all they need, according to Mr. Aldridge. Just my name and address.

“We do this by having great relationships with financial institutions… Broadly speaking, every [business] we help wants to be able to transfer dollars out of the consumer’s pocket into their own cash register. And that’s what this information affords…

“We’ve sort of thrown together all of our information about economic capacity, and included things like age, income, marital status, number of children, home ownership — and thrown all that together, like a demographic cake mix. All you have to do is add the egg, and go.”

In other words, Mr. Aldridge claims DDM can analyze the tourists coming to Pagosa Springs — provided our local business owners are willing to provide the names and addresses of those visitors to DDM — and then tell us, at some level of detail, what TV programs these visitors are watching at home and what magazines they are reading. And so on.

(Note: I don’t think DDM will not be able to tell us whether our tourists smoke marijuana, because you have to pay cash when you buy marijuana in Pagosa Springs.)

Mr. Aldridge:

“We’ve divided the entire country into 71 different buckets. I will interchangeably use the terms “buckets,” “cohorts,” and “segments.” Because I’ve worked for different companies that have called them “buckets,” “cohorts,” and “segments.”

“Everyone in the country falls into one of these buckets.”

You, dear reader, fall into one of these data buckets. And so do I.

Read Part Four…

Bill Hudson

Bill Hudson founded the Pagosa Daily Post in 2004 in hopes of making a decent living writing about local politics. The hope remains.