Open Your Mind: A Q&A with long-serving marketing professor M. David Rice

Appearing at regular intervals in YFile, Open Your Mind is a series of articles offering insight into the different ways York University professors, researchers and graduate students champion fresh ways of thinking in their research and teaching practice. Their approach, grounded in a desire to seek the unexpected, is charting a new course for future generations.

Today, the spotlight is on M. David Rice, a professor of marketing at Schulich School of Business.

Rice’s research is focused on understanding how modern technology can be used in the application of marketing research. Specific topics of interest and research include facial recognition/biometrics, mobile surveillance, social media metrics, online surveys, so-called ‘Big Data’ and data privacy concerns.

Q. Please describe your field of current research.    

M. David Rice
M. David Rice

A. My current research focuses on data collection technologies and privacy issues in business and marketing.   Currently, I am conducting a national survey of Canadians to determine if they know about the ways that their personal data is being collected, stored and used by corporations.

Q. How would you describe the significance of your research in lay terms?

A. I think that privacy and security of our personal information is one of the most important social issues today. Companies are collecting more and more data on us by tracking our purchases, examining our Internet browsing behavior, monitoring our physical location  through our cellphones, searching our emails, identifying us via facial recognition software and videotaping our activities. Further, this information is regularly being shared, warehoused and sold by companies in order to create individual profiles or dossiers on all consumers. As a society, we need to have a greater understanding of these facts, and implement laws and practices to manage this information in a secure and transparent way.

Q. How does your approach to the subject benefit the field?

A. With exponential increases in collection of our personal data, we need improved privacy protocols and security measures to protect this information. In my opinion, the current privacy policies in Canada are not keeping up with the rapid technological change in this area. I hope that my work will have an impact and help convince companies and government to put privacy, transparency and protection of personal data as a top priority.

Q. What findings have surprised and excited you?

A. In my work, I am always discovering innovative methods that companies have created in order to track and collect information on consumers. A recent innovation is that some companies are inserting inaudible high-frequency sounds into television, online and mobile advertisements. Humans can’t hear these sounds, but these sounds allow companies to match your devices (tablets, smart phones, computers) to track you more effectively.  It’s a creepy advancement in customer surveillance that most Canadians have never heard about. In addition, we have new facial recognition technology that can accurately recognize a person’s gender, age and mood as they walk past a camera. These cameras are now being built into billboards in shopping malls. So, it is now possible to display unique ads tailored to individual consumers as they pass by these billboards.

Q. Every researcher encounters roadblocks and challenges during the process of inquiry, can you highlight some of those challenges and how you overcame them?

A. In my work, I am constantly asking companies about their data collection practices. That is, I ask companies what technologies/techniques they use for data collection, how they store the data and how they use it. I am finding that some companies are very guarded in providing me with this information and some organizations won’t talk to me at all. Understandably, these companies are worried that there might be backlash if the public really understood how their personal data was being collected and used.

M. David Rice teaching
M. David Rice teaching at Schulich

Q. Are there interdisciplinary aspects to your research? If so, what are they?

A. My research is interdisciplinary and covers many fields including law, business, civil liberties, sociology and psychology.

Q. How has your research influenced your own personal use of technology?

A. Since starting my research stream, I have become more careful in how I share my personal information.   For example, before I download an app I will read the app’s ‘Terms and Conditions’ to understand how my personal data will be used. If I suspect that the app will record and share/sell my data to other companies, then I simply won’t download it. In addition, I will very rarely provide my email address or other personally identifiable information to a retailer when I make a purchase.

Q. Did you ever consider other fields of research?

A. I started my career as a professor at York, but was seduced into being a dotcom entrepreneur for several years. It was an excellent experience as it gave me some of the practical experience that I was lacking being a life-long academic. I prefer the academic life, however, as it is more balanced and sane.

Q. Are you teaching any courses this year?  If so, what are they? Do you bring your research experience into your teaching practice?

A. For the past several years, I have been fortunate to teach the market research course exclusively. I have lots of opportunities to discuss my experience founding and running an online market research company during the early days of the Internet. Students enjoy hearing about my stories about conducting research in the ‘wild and crazy’ days of the dotcom boom.

Q. What advice would you give to students embarking on a research project for the first time?

A. My advice to students is to pay attention to details. In market research, a single wrong number can hurt credibility and lead to disastrous decision making. I tell my students, with all sincerity, that good market research is the life blood of a company.

Q. Tell us a bit about yourself:

A. I have an unusual combination of degrees, having completed a bachelor’s degree in religion and then a doctorate in communications/marketing. People sometimes ask me “How did you go from religion to marketing/business?” I tell them the two topics are highly related! That is, the religious person and the marketing person both have something to sell you that will make you “happier and more fulfilled”. For the religious person, that something is a Deity and for the marketing person it’s Cheez Whiz or some other product.

Q. How long have you been a researcher?

A. I just celebrated my 30th year at York University.

Q. What are you reading and/or watching right now?

A. My son and I are currently binge watching Breaking Bad. The story and writing on that series is superb.

Q. If you could have dinner with any one person, dead or alive, who would you select and why?

A. I would love to have dinner with the novelist Stephen King. As an aspiring writer, I would like to ask him how he gets his creative ideas and what he does when he is having ‘writer’s block’.

Q. What do you do for fun?

A. I am a road cycling fanatic. Last year, I cycled over 9,000 kilometers and my goal is to surpass that this year.