What You Need, When You Need It: How Context-aware Machines Will Change How We Access Information

Getting the right information, to the right people, at the right time, requires a better understanding of the context in which information is shared. Sounds obvious, right? But, if you think about how enterprises manage data and people, I would argue that it hasn’t been all that obvious at all. Although much time and effort goes into identifying requirements, classifying and organizing information, and managing access rights, little thought is given to how user requirements change, evolve, and are affected by circumstance.

Unlike information taxonomies that catalogue data or data security protocols that either allow access or deny it, context is dynamic; it changes. Advertisers have been thinking about this for many years. An ad for Bud Light Lime might not be all that relevant in the commuter newspaper, but it makes perfect sense behind a urinal in the men’s room of the pub, or on a billboard in cottage country. But that’s still a very 1.0 view of context. What’s missing is the granularity that takes this type of generic contextualizing (e.g. if you’re at the bathroom in a pub, you’ve probably been drinking beer; maybe you’ll like our beer) to a personalized one (e.g. we know you only drink at the pub after work, not during lunch, so at lunch we’ll offer an ad for coffee; after work, we know you’re favourite drink is gin and tonic, not beer, so we’ll suggest a new premium brand of gin).

While advertisers are leading the way, for most enterprises, this type of granular ‘what you need, when you need it’ approach to information is still far from reality. The good news is that the tools to sense and record context—rich user profiles, presence awareness, geolocation data, status updates, and lifestreaming information—are exploding all around us. You might think of much of this as information exhaust—the incidental, or ambient data that is created as a by-product of simply carrying on with our daily lives.

The anthropological view (circa 2007) of ‘exhaust data’ is that it has little information content, but lots of emotional and social content that contributes to identity, intimacy between individuals, and a deeper cultural understanding. However, as tireless machines work 24/7/365 to mine this exhaust data, the information content becomes apparent as well. The data will reveal important trends about individuals and their preferences, thus enabling context-aware machines to sense our needs and respond. What this means for enterprises is greater employee productivity as users spend less time looking for and filtering information, and better customer experiences as contextual information leads to greater customer intimacy and personalization. As Edo Segal notes on TechCrunch:

“These are streams of information bubbling up in realtime, which seek us out, surround us, and inform us. They are like a fireplace bathing us in ambient infoheat. I believe that users will not go to a page and type in a search in a search box. Rather the information will appear to them in an ambient way on a range of devices and through different experiences. […] Humanity is constructing its own synthetic sixth sense. An ambient sense that perceives the context of your activity and augments your reality with related information and experiences. Increasingly, we will be sensing the world with this sixth sense and that will change the way we collectively experience the world.”

Indeed, Gartner believes context-aware computing will provide significant competitive advantage. I agree. The firm predicts that “By 2012, the typical Global 2000 company will be managing between two and 10 business relationships with context providers.” Technologists, enterprises, and academics are beginning to understand the importance of context and we’re starting to see products and services that reflect this. Consider the following examples:


  • Cisco Context-Aware Software is a mobile solution that integrates contextual information (including location, temperature, and availability of an asset) with business process applications.
  • Marcopolo for MAC OS is an open-source, early example of context aware computing that triggers actions based on changes in location or activity.
  • Research In Motion (RIM) appears to be pursuing context-aware security for the Blackberry. The company was granted a patent in August of 2009 for a mobile device that can change security settings based on its environment.
  • Earthmine uses 3-D mapping to tag the physical world. Imagine having Terminator vision, but displayed on your iPhone. Tags, such as the ones shown in the picture below, could be customized to reflect any context.

 Feel free to share any other context-aware examples you know of.

Article written by

Naumi Haque has more than a decade of experience in the research and advisory industry. Naumi has been at the forefront of customer experience management, recently arguing that enterprises need an integrated customer experience strategy to meet customer expectations. He has conducted research and provided thought leadership on a wide variety of topics related to emerging technology and business innovation, including: social media strategy, customer experience, next generation marketing, enterprise collaboration, open innovation, digital identity, new sources of enterprise data, and disruptive web-enabled business models. He received his MBA and his Honors in Business Administration from the University of Western Ontario’s Richard Ivey School of Business.