Big Data Is a Big Deal


It is being touted as the technological next-big-thing. Not surprisingly, “big data” is a concept a bit difficult to get one’s head around. It is a “transformative” phenomenon a bit like the Gutenberg printing press, say Viktor Mayer-Schönberger and Kenneth Cukier, the authors of Big Data: A Revolution That Will Transform How We Live, Work, and Think, the definitive book on the subject. Big data encompasses business, government, science, politics, education—pretty much everything—as well as personal issues of privacy and even how we see the world.

Big data is made possible by datafication—that is, rendering into data anything that can be quantified. Computers, servers, and the Internet—aided by inexpensive memory, powerful processors, and clever algorithms—have brought down the cost of gathering, storing, and sharing information. Add to that all kinds of remote or mobile sensing technologies, and the data just keep getting bigger—many exabytes big (an exabyte is 1018—a 1 followed by 19 zeros)!

Analysis of vast data sets can identify patterns, find correlations, and help make predictions. As Jeremy Bash, a national security analyst, said, “If you’re looking for a needle in the haystack, you need a haystack.” This needle-in-a-haystack analogy implies that we know what we are looking for. In an important sense, big data analytics involves putting all this data that have been gathered to as yet unknown uses. This angle interests economists because the possibilities for innovation are huge. It is becoming increasingly clear that those who harness big data will gain a significant economic edge over those who don’t.

Authors Mayer-Schönberger and Cukier predict that our expanding ability to “quantify and understand the world” through data analysis also will help solve “global problems like addressing climate change, eradicating disease and fostering good governance and economic development.” They warn, however, that big data also poses a new threat: the “dictatorship of data.” Human traits essential to entrepreneurship—creativity, intuition, ingenuity, even common sense—may be crowded out by an overreliance on big data.

Image credit: © Chad Baker/Photodisc/Getty Images

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One Comment

  1. Muna says:

    The transformative reslut is reconfiguration of the book as an integrated component of a library. A new practice of library reading will assimilate books into a larger learning experience perhaps parsed at the grade level.An eerie metaphor for evolution of social species.