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St. Paul public libraries will test customer data tracking software

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Online data tracking – everyone is doing it, including your local library if you live in St. Paul.

The city's public library system will be the first in Minnesota to test new software aimed at helping it understand user habits, who is and isn't visiting the library, and how best to communicate with the community, MPR News reports.

The software – an app from Gale Cengage Learning called Analytics on Demand – is designed to let libraries analyze circulation data (for example, what kinds of books a customer likes to check out) and demographic information to build a profile of its users, according to Library Journal.

Gale Cengage has a few report examples up on its website.

In the patron profiles example, names aren't included. It offers a look at where patrons are coming from, how far the the drive is, how many times a household checks out items, how likely it is a household has children, race, likely income range, and more.

It does this by taking data already stored by the library and pairing it with other databases – census information, geographic data, lifestyle patterns, and more, according to a Gale Cengage video.

The Library Journal points out libraries across the country – including in California, Arizona, Washington, Kansas and New York – are using data collection for insight into how patrons are utilizing their services, which in turn helps them develop marketing strategies and even plan their budgets.

St. Paul Public Library tells MPR the information it hopes to gather could shed light on what different groups of patrons do while they're at the system's libraries – allowing the institution to potentially tailor visitors' experiences in a way that's "more responsive to the people in the city."

But some in St. Paul are concerned about privacy violations, with a local advocate (who was interviewed for the MPR article) expressing his misgivings about the library's plans:

For its part, the company responsible for the data collection app says the information gathered is "for library-use only" and not available to businesses.

Data collection is big business

The St. Paul Public Library and others like it across the country are essentially following the lead of the advertising world – where keeping tabs on which websites you visit has become "big business" for companies trying to figure out how to market to potential customers, the Economist reported last year.

In fact, an entire industry has sprung up around the practice, with the magazine noting that a number of "data collection" companies are building "digital dossiers" of Internet users based on their online behavior and then selling the potentially valuable information.

And this isn't new – according to the New York Times, a 2012 study from the University of California, Berkeley found that activity on the web's most popular websites was being tracked by more and more companies.

Researchers hoped that their findings would provide vital information to "all sides" of the Internet privacy debate, the paper reported.

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