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Turning the tables on online advertisers

Jer Thorp's Office for Creative Research is a co-creator of the Chrome extension Floodwatch. (Photo via  <a href="">PopTech</a> , under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license)

Online advertisers collect tons of digital data to understand us as consumers. Now we're getting a chance to see what they're seeing.

A team of digital specialists recently launched Floodwatch, a free extension for the Chrome browser that tracks and analyzes the ads that cross your screen as you move around the Web and displays the data visually to reveal a bird's-eye sense of how you're being targeted.

Online advertisers — or at least their algorithms — are studying us all day long. This is an opportunity to study them back.

In the world of modern Internet advertising, what makes us different is what makes us valuable. To maximize that value, ads are often sold through a complex auction. When you go to a Web site, a small bit of Javascript code travels from your browser to an online ad placement service, sharing the bits of information it knows about you. Without human intervention, the auction decides who wins the right to serve you an ad. And it all happens in a fraction of second, out of the user's view.

"We're leaving these tiny fragments of ourselves on the floor as we're browsing the Internet," says Jer Thorp, a former "data artist in residence" at the New York Times whose Manhattan shop, the Office for Creative Research, created the service in partnership with privacy and security researcher Ashkan Soltani. (Soltani has been on contract to report for The Washington Post.) "Advertisers are sweeping up those fragments, dumping them on the table and saying, 'Mmm, this person is really into video games.'"

"We're just trying to make that process visible," says Thorp.

Web sites collect as much information as possible about their visitors because the more they know, the more they can charge advertisers to target their audience. The "cookies" that we generate as we move around the Internet are used by advertisers to determine how to sell to us online, whether it's new sneakers, a vacation spot, or a political candidate.

Some Web services already allow you to see how and why they are advertising to you. Google has a Web page that notes the personal characteristics, including gender and age range, as well as browsing-history-derived interests — from hair care to football to superhero films — that are shared with advertisers. Yahoo's ad preference manager tracks the categories in which you most often search.

But although there has been growing interest in understanding how the digital advertising ecosystem works, less attention has been paid to creating tools that let users do something about it.

To that end, Floodwatch wants data from its users, too -- it wants their ad histories, so that researchers can glean insights from the accumulated records of large numbers of Internet users. In the future, users will also be asked to volunteer personal characteristics about themselves that will allow the project to determine whether, say, Democrats are getting different online shoe ads than Republicans.

In the coming weeks, the Floodwatch team also hopes to roll out a feature called Ad Signature. The option will allow you to compare the ads you're seeing to those seen by someone very similar to you but perhaps of a different gender, or very like you but living on the other side of the United States. In that way, Web users can see how their online experience might be affected by their offline demographics.

"The reality is," says Chris Talbot of the D.C. strategy firm Talbot Digital, "that it won't be that revealing on a personal scale. But if you aggregate the data you might be able to see how large-scale advertisers are serving up billions of ads every day."

The anonymous data collected through Floodwatch will be shared with outside researchers to better understand the invisible systems that are shaping Web users' online experiences. Says Thorp, "We're going to give the data to somebody other than advertisers."

There have been other efforts to shine a light on, and control, how users are tracked online. Lightbeam is a plug-in for the Firefox browser that displays the cookies left behind in a computer's cache as its users visit Web sites. Ghostery is a browser add-on and iPhone app that allows users to turn off Web site tracking on a case-by-case basis.

But Thorp says the only way things might truly change is if users engage with the Web as it is, not as they wish it to be.

"Opting out isn't really activism," says Thorp. "It's good for you. But it's not good for anyone else. We're not going to expose any malpractice by opting out. Floodwatch is about saying, 'Okay, let's get into it.'"

Floodwatch's approach fits into the practice of "data philanthropy," advocated in international social justice circles as a way for businesses to share one of their most vital assets. The World Bank has called on the private sector to share data, including about users, to "support more timely and targeted policy action." Floodwatch is advocating an individual approach — giving over your data to help others in the same way that you might donate your body for medical research.

Targeted digital advertising is a large and growing business. The online advertising industry in the United States in the first quarter of 2014 hit $11.6 billion, a near 20 percent increase over the same quarter of last year, according to research from the Interactive Advertising Bureau and PricewaterhouseCoopers. "The scale of this stuff is just massive," says Talbot Digital's Chris Talbot.

Floodwatch launched Monday. The team behind it reports that it is on track to have 10,000 users by the end of the week.

Some say the greatest benefit of a tool like Floodwatch may be that it allows users to see that the algorithms behind targeted online ads are often still quite crude. Adam Greenfield is a senior fellow at the London School of Economics Cities Programme. He notes, for example, that Floodwatch has shown him that  he gets advertisements for automobiles, a product he has no interest in buying. "The important aspect of any kind of information-gathering system isn't whether it does what is says on the tin," Greenfield says, "it's whether we believe it does."

"It's part of a larger problem with data with a capital D," Thorp says. "It carries authority without a need to prove that authority. It's, 'Oh, data. It must be right.' We're interested in changing what people think of when they think about data."

Correction: This piece referred incorrectly to the firm involved in the creation of Floodwatch. It is the Office for Creative Research, not the Office of Creative Research.