Every day we collectively produce billions and billions and billions of bytes of digital breadcrumbs, or bits and pieces of data, as a result of cell phones, social media, shopping, and receiving services in industries that collect and store data about their clientele.
Until recently, the data has been collected but not organized in ways that were particularly helpful, but now we’re beginning to recognize the importance of this volume of information for helping plan cities to be more energy efficient and better to live in; for improving the quality of life for our citizens; and for mapping health care trends to benefit communities’ overall well-being.
For example, Google already uses big data to help you avoid ugly traffic snarls. They purchase data from cellular service providers that tells them exactly how those phones are moving at any given point, say on the freeway leading from downtown into the suburbs where you live. This data allows them to see where the flow stops, and then the maps turn yellow or red, indicating areas to avoid during your drive. It would be hard to argue that this application of big data is negative, since it simplifies daily life and improves moods to boot – nobody likes to get stuck in traffic, so avoiding it is a good thing, right?
Another, (still in its potential stage), application for digital breadcrumbs would be to track the spread of annual flu epidemics through communities using data gathered from Tweets. An example that has been used? Capture every time the phrase ‘I feel sick’ is used in Tweets during flu outbreaks, and map, very closely (via geolocation) how an outbreak is spreading in real time, vs looking back over weeks like we currently do. Next steps could be to actually contact people (via Tweet, of course) who have been in contact with an ill person, and encourage them to wash their hands and get enough sleep since they’ve been exposed.
Supporters of Big Data believe it will enable better prediction of human needs, weather patterns (that will in turn help predict crop success/failure), resource needs, and will ultimately allow for more efficient planning across the board. Proponents are rubbing their hands together, anticipating unprecedented access to information that will help accurately predict human behavior and trends, thereby allowing proactive preparation for big surges in travel, purchasing, energy consumption, etc.
The flip side is the potential for abuse of personal privacy, and the possibility for abuse of data by less than scrupulous businesses seeking your absolute support and focus and who target you with relentless, highly personalized promotions that simply annoy, and make you want to abandon your iPhone or Droid or laptop and never look back.
The era of Big Data is here, and we want to know what you think about it.