In the past 24 hours, you've passively shed more data than you can possibly imagine. Tiny fragments of the physical and virtual you are strewn across all the places you've been: the unique keystroke patterns entered as you've typed on your computer; the subtle intonations in your recorded call to customer service; the biomatter you've left behind in cars and public bathrooms. On their own, these bits of you aren't particularly useful. But collected with everyone else's data, then mined and refined with powerful artificial intelligence systems, your passive data can be used to tell the story of your future.

By now, you're no doubt familiar with crowdsourcing: asking the public to contribute their ideas to help you solve problems or to weigh in on decisions. But what if you could harness the wisdom of the crowd without asking them any questions? What if you could hold an intensive focus group--or an exhaustive store walk-through--at scale, and without the usual cadre of customers and pricey influencers and experts?

Researchers now know that making such observations from our passive data can be much more informative than interacting with us directly. This is "crowdlearning": using the vast volumes of data we shed or are otherwise available (our online activity, our locations, the biodata in state and federal health records) to learn or understand something new.

Crowdlearning can be used to predict what new products will be needed in the marketplace and what services customers will want­--well before they know themselves. Companies adept at understanding the intersection of data and human behavior can learn how much time their customers spend on various websites, what triggers their decisions, and what media they'll consume within the context of life events such as marriage, moving into a new home, or starting a family.

Target infamously used crowdlearning to infer when certain customers were pregnant--and then marketed baby-related products to them. While some customers bristled, many didn't, and most never connected the dots. A world of opportunity awaits companies that ask their customers to opt in to sharing their data--imagine combining a customer's data with her location and real-time weather information ahead of a big winter storm, and sending her a personalized reminder to stock up on her essentials: coffee, avocados, de-icing salt.

Our passive data can also be used to predict what colors, shapes, and designs we'll be attracted to in the future. IBM's Watson used data from New York Fashion Week, along with human attributes from hundreds of photos--how models moved down runways in various apparel, for example--to make accurate clothing-trend predictions for the fall of 2017. The same system could be used to anticipate new forms and styles for consumer technology, kitchenware, and furniture.

As more connected devices launch, entrepreneurs will have access to even more data, allowing them to forecast customer needs and desires further into the future. The CubeSats from Planet Labs--miniature satellites that can record and beam nearly real-time visual data back down to Earth--will help businesses get a sense of how people move around towns, cities, airports, and seaports. And connected workout apparel from companies like Supa and Sensoria, along with "earable" in-ear devices from Bragi and smart pills like Abilify MyCite (data-collecting devices are embedded in both items), will continue to enter the mainstream from the fringes, creating more passive data all the time.

In the next few years, you'll start to see simple dashboards that will help you extract meaning and learn from the crowd. You won't need to be a research scientist to see your future in all that data. And what you can do with all that information--and how to build your business to meet the changes just over the horizon--is a project you can start thinking about today.

Why You Can't Let Customer Data Fall Through the Cracks

From the March/April 2018 issue of Inc. Magazine