Big Data in a Big World

March 7, 2013 by: RBearSAT

big-data2This morning on NPR, Steve Inskeep sat down with Kenneth Cukier, one of the authors of the book “Big Data: A Revolution That Will Transform How We Live, Work and Think,” to discuss how the information technology concept called big data is starting to affect our lives and how the world treats us. You’ve all heard the term and probably some of you might really know what it means. But, for those of you who might just know it by term only, it’s pulling together very large sets of data to “”spot business trends, determine quality of research, prevent diseases, link legal citations, combat crime, and determine real-time roadway traffic conditions,” according to the Wikipedia entry on it. Some find the fact that businesses and the government are looking at everything you do as kind of creepy, seeing it as the real rise of “Big Brother.” But others are starting to see the benefit of having such insight on society and how it can help us make more informed decisions. But we’re not quite where we really need to be with Big Data.

To start with, I’m no expert on Big Data, by any stretch of the imagination. Remember, most of my focus has been on social media, mobile, and payments. But in each of those areas, big data has provided some level of improvement in the technology space to help offer a better solution. In the area of payments, having big data helped us create better fraud detection models to not only stop the fraud from happening but giving customers more control over their finances by looking at their overall profile and history. It helped us automate the concept of that banker you knew all your life growing up who saw you every day in the community and could give you a loan right on the spot, just because he trusted you.

In the area of social media, big data helps businesses and organizations spot trends and identify customer sentiment on a variety of topics and events. By mining the public conversation in social media on particular matters, many companies and organizations are looking for what really matters most to the public based on how they converse on things. It would make sense based on our experience throughout life. Think of the conversations you’ve had in groups where the topics would focus on what everyone thought about the Spurs last game or what they like about “House of Cards.”

But before we get too excited about the big data of social media, the challenge organizations will find is that the conversation may not be big enough yet to really derive true public sentiment. As noted by a recent Pew Research study, a recent analysis of Twitter traffic on several public issues like the recent presidential election or the State of the Union reflected differences from public opinion polling. According to the NY Times article on the study, “Pew researchers point out that those who comment on Twitter about news events tend to share their opinions on subjects that interest them the most.”

But most importantly, we’re still learning what big data is bringing to the table, in terms of intelligence. One of the most interesting examples recently brought to the table is how some police departments have been trying to use big data to help provide crime trends and profiles in neighborhoods, leveraging a software, called Predpol, to help predict crime that possibly could happen. According to their website, “In contrast to technology that analyzes and maps past crime for some hints at the future—a kind of ‘rear view mirror’ policing—PredPol tells law enforcement what is coming.”

The only challenge with Predpol is that there’s really not enough information to correlate its contribution to the reduction of crime, according to an article by MIT Technology Review. When you provide police departments with potential zones of crime, the game changes in terms of patrol. “Officers report feeling a heightened state of awareness when in these zones. That psychological effect surely makes them do their jobs better, regardless of prediction accuracy,” said the article.

At SXSW Interactive, there are several sessions on big data, a few of which I want to attend. One is entitled “The New Nature vs. Nurture: Big Data & Identity” and focuses on how children born and raised in this new era of big data are receiving a different type of focus than most of us growing up. “The increasing availability of data changes how we are able to know and define ourselves—at the risk of being defined by algorithms that we can’t control,” from the session description. Another, “Designing Habits: From Big Data to Small Changes,” focuses on how the rise of inexpensive sensors and big data for healthcare could change our daily habits to push for a more healthy lifestyle.

In general, big data is here to stay. Whether we embrace it or fight it, keeping our lives private and away from the big data monitors will become increasingly more difficult. But is that really a bad thing?

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