Big Data is all around us. It’s generating every moment at staggering volumes and changing the way finance, marketing, social media, and other companies interact with users. Big Data’s impact on our lives will continue to increase as analytical methods improve and businesses are able to harness more of the customer information they’re gathering. That’s why it’s important to understand what Big Data is, where it comes from, and how companies can use it.
What is Big Data?
Big Data is exactly what it sounds like: a pool of information so large and complicated that even powerful computers struggle to process it. This data includes each person’s interactions with the Web each day. The pool of data is gigantic – and growing by the second. Every two days, worldwide Internet usage creates as much data as there was from the beginning of time to 2003, and analysts suggest that the volume of Big Data in 2020 will be 50 times as large as it is today.
Where does Big Data come from?
Every Internet task involves a data exchange. This includes when you:
- Use a search engine
- Make a purchase
- Write an email or instant message
- Stream entertainment
- Sign up for an online service
- Post content to social media
Each time you access the Internet, your computer shares data with the Web to process your request. Your smartphone knows even more about you; thanks to location services, it knows where you currently are, what places you visit frequently, and where you were when you posted a photo to Facebook.
You can also contribute to Big Data without interacting with the Internet. Restaurants and retailers track online transactional data about what customers are purchasing, when, and where. But credit card transactions are only a small part of today’s “Internet of Things,” the ever-expanding network of Internet-connected devices that collect and share data. Beyond smartphones, this includes products like smart appliances (the app-controlled Nest thermostat), Amazon Dash buttons for express-ordering, and wearable tech like smartwatches and fitness trackers. All collect information to function, and add it to the Big Data pool.
What is Big Data used for?
Big Data is useful for implementing targeted ad campaigns. Have you wondered how Facebook ads are so specific to you (and sometimes too specific)? This approach is called data-driven marketing, and it’s pretty effective. Using your “Likes” and other public information (like your name, age, city, and job), advertisers study you in an effort to display their most relevant products and content.
In the bigger picture, Big Data can help companies to make broad policy, marketing, and business strategy decisions. Retail stores, for example, can predict the type and quantity of items they should stock by analyzing how much social media buzz it’s getting, what people (and where, and how many) are Googling it, and what the weather forecast shows.
Individuals can benefit from Big Data, too: that’s the goal when you buy a fitness tracker to monitor your activity and sleep patterns. But the real value is in the cumulative data of all fitness trackers. This information could be invaluable in illustrating health trends worldwide, to improve healthcare and observe correlations between lifestyle, age, ethnicity, and health. It could also be very lucrative for insurance providers for the same reason.
Conversations about whether it’s ethical to sell consumer data to third parties are ongoing, but so far, regulation is minimal worldwide. In early September 2015, Japan made changes to its Data Privacy Law, giving more leeway for companies to sell “anonymized” data they collect. Data exchange in the U.S. is similarly unregulated, and Fortune suggests the market for Big Data will grow 50% by 2019.
Despite the multi-decade Big Data discussion and incredible volume of data out there, the quest to better extract value from that data is continual. Today companies and governments use Big Data to gain insights into our purchasing, health, and social behavior – tomorrow, who knows?