“Big Data.” For those in the know, it represents the cutting edge of how we envision the world and our interactions with it. Big Data could lead to the things we’ve always wanted: better healthcare, faster problem-solving, spiffier products. The list goes on.
Even for those casually familiar with the phrase, Big Data carries an appealing buzz of something mysterious and forward thinking.
Even President Obama, ever cognizant of current trends, has managed to leap gracefully onto the Big Data bandwagon. In March 2012, the White House launched a Big Data initiative that will involve organizations such as NIH, the Department of Defense, Veteran Affairs, and NASA, to name a very few.
Big Data encompasses two simple truths: we are generating exponentially more data, and storage is becoming exponentially cheaper. No doubt, this vast amount of data will yield important information for various areas of our lives. But why is it important? Most significantly, what does Big Data mean for you?
WHAT IS BIG DATA?
In 2001, Doug Laney summed up Big Data in three words: Volume, Variety, and Velocity. Since then, other V’s have been added to the concept, such as veracity(how accurate is the data?). For considerations of space, we’ll focus on just two: volume and velocity.
Volume: How big is big? At some point in grade school, chances are that you learned the prefixes for very big numbers: mega-, giga-, tera. Maybe you also learned the ones beyond that: peta-, exa-, zetta-, yotta-. Cisco expects that we will generate 1 Zettabyte (1,000 Exabytes) of Internet data annually by 2015.
Also, more people are using their smartphones and tablets to surf the Web and stream videos. In fact, Monetate predicts that by 2016, 61% of all Internet usage will happen via wireless devices.
Velocity: How much data do we go through at any given time? Here are some figures:
That’s a lot of data, to say the least—and a lot of cute kitten videos. (Perhaps not surprisingly, video accounts for 60% of all Internet data.)
WHY IS BIG DATA IMPORTANT?
From an analytical standpoint, having more data is a good thing. More data points mean more accurate models. For instance, it becomes easier to predict rare events.
Paradoxically, more is also less. Instead of having to create fancy, complicated models, simple predictive algorithms will work better.
From an industry perspective, Big Data unquestionably makes things better. Tracking large amounts of data in real time leads to quicker solutions, which translates to millions (and even billions) in savings.
In healthcare, large datasets can be used to allocate staff and resources in a more efficient manner. Ideally, this would reduce healthcare costs—something of particular importance in the United States. Recently, the University of Florida created maps, using freely available public health data, to determine the rate of breast cancer screenings. According to CIO, this led to the discovery of three underserved counties in Florida, and mobile health units were sent there accordingly.
Retail is particularly interested in Big Data. It helps companies learn what products the public wants, and how to market them effectively. (This is how Amazon is able to tailor recommendations to your preferences, or why Google can magically finish typing your search phrases.)
Big Data also creates efficient logistics for businesses. For example, UPS gathers data from sensors installed on its delivery vehicles. Collectively, this data helps to optimize delivery routes, eliminating millions of extra miles and saving millions of gallons of fuel.
FINE, BUT HOW DOES BIG DATA AFFECT ME?
It already does. You have probably already used Google Maps to check traffic patterns as you commute. It helps your doctor to tailor your medical treatment. In the future, recommendations for stores or restaurants can pop up on your device as you walk by them.
We think of Big Data as beneficent, but it’s also worth considering the hazards. Privacy is a hot-button issue. How do we guard all this data? More importantly, who will patrol the data guardians? In May 2012, an internal audit of the National Security Agency found that it broke privacy rules thousands of times annually. On a local scale, one town uses data for “predictive policing,” recalling the film Minority Report. In the era of Big Data, we must weigh the benefits against the costs to privacy and autonomy.