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Big Data. Sounds fancy doesn’t it? It’s quickly gone from a buzzword to a commonly used business term. And it’s also gone from a concept to a way of working that has revolutionised how companies do business. However, many of us lack a basic definition of Big Data, know little about how it can help companies or what it delivers and many don’t know why it’s so important in today’s world of rapid business decisions. And yes, we’ve already attempted to shoehorn Pokemon Go into the blog. Expect more of that…
We might as well be open and honest here. There’s not actually a commonly agreed definition for Big Data. However, a basic definition of the phrase ‘Big Data’ refers to anything that we do in our day-to-day lives that leaves a digital trace, which can then be collected, analysed and modelled. Since the accessibility to technology has gotten that much cheaper, the amount of data we create is absolutely huge and, as a result of this, the opportunities businesses have from analysing said data are vast.
That’s not to say the idea of collecting data has not been around longer than technology and the internet. The cataloguing of human data has, of course, been going on for centuries. However, what is new this time around is the surge in technological advances over a short period of time. The changes to the way we store data has also increased our abilities in the amount of data that we can collect and analyse. Cloud computing, chip technology and, of course, the Internet have all paved the way for the phenomenon known as ‘Big Data’ to emerge.
What’s driving this huge amount of data is the way we all now go about our day-to-day business. For example, most of our music is listening is done via online streaming. A lot of our shopping, such as buying groceries and gifts, is done online. And of course, many, many people are playing Pokemon Go. Unless you’ve lived under a rock and haven’t seen the light in the past 2 months, you’ve probably heard of Pokemon Go. The virtual reality game allows players to use their phone’s GPS to track and capture virtual creatures called, well, you’ve guessed it, Pokemon. More than 130 million people around the world are already playing the game.
Originally Pokemon used to be played with cards and game boys. Now it is mapped on real world locations and requires huge amounts of data going to and from phones. Niantic, the company behind Pokemon Go, uses different datasets, including Google Earth, to throw Pokemon creatures into your environment. The game also uses the data it receives from yours and the other users' phones to add new locations to the game. It tracks where you go, when, how long you stayed for and keeps all of that information. And it stores that information. As you can guess, all of these activities use a lot of data — data that can be mined, stored, analysed and visualised. Providing ample opportunity for businesses.
Another additional change that has benefited data is the way it is being analysed. In the early days, data was typically analysed through tables and spreadsheets, with the use of pivot tables in particular (who misses pivot tables??). Most people could make sense of numbers and KPIs. Nowadays data is much more than just numbers; it consists of emails, audio, video, customer feedback… This data is largely unstructured. Nevertheless it is useful and needs to be analysed as well. That’s where open source big data tools come in: Hadoop, Spark, MapReduce… are frameworks which allow you to store, process Big Data using simple programming models. They are able to manage and analyse unstructured information to discover patterns and predict future business trends… but the results remain uncertain. For businesses it can be a gold mine, but that means having to go through data quality and categorisation and the handling of such larger volumes of information, meaning technology upgrades.
As mentioned above, businesses are seeking to analyse and use our data in a number of different ways. This includes both positive and negative usages. We’ll cover the flaws and concerns people have about Big Data in a later blog. For now, one of the most common arguments against Big Data is that people are concerned about their personal data being used by huge, faceless corporations. Remember when Tesco figured out a 16 year old girl was pregnant before her own parents?
However, the positive case for how Big Data is also very real.
For starters, companies that have access to our shopping patterns can predict and better understand our interests. If you’ve ever shopped on Amazon, part of their recommendations for you are based off on what you previously purchased, searched for or clicked. This is all part of the data analysis.
However, it can also be used to effectively manage and drive business processes. Companies can increase or decrease their stock depending on what they can see via social media channels. They can predict what products might be popular around the festive periods, for example. They can use data and optimise their supply chains, so that they can reach places faster and more efficiently. They can also predict, months down the line, how effective their marketing campaign will be. Simply put, the benefits of Big Data to companies is huge.
However, it’s not just retailers where Big Data can make real change and improve companies. Analytics can be used to predict certain outbreaks of diseases and help doctors and hospitals combat them, for example. A number of law enforcement forces can use Big Data to predict areas of the city where certain crimes are prevalent and on what days and even time where the most crimes take place. The mayor of Boston is using Big Data on a daily basis, with dashboards showing him the most critical KPIs of the last 30 days, helping him devise its strategy. And let’s not forget the effect it had on Baseball (we loved Brad Pitt in that movie!).
In short, Big Data can have a big impact on every aspect of life, not just in the business world.
What’s even more fascinating about Big Data is the trend is only going to get, well, bigger. As the amount of tools increases and data becomes cheaper and more accessible to analyse, the amount of development that can be done with data will continue to grow. Big Data will have an enormous impact on future products ranging from groceries through to medical care. It will allow public and private organisations to make decisions, to assess what went right or wrong in the past and to understand their demographics better.
Regardless of how we feel about Big Data, it affects us on a day-to-day basis and will only continue to do so. We will, therefore, continue to explore and look at the dangers and shortcomings Big Data has in the next blog. For now though, I'm off to catch some Pokemon…