Big Data is a Big Deal

big data

Have you heard the term big data yet?  Big data involves the collection of data and the relationships that can be drawn from it.   It’s not a new concept, but discussion of big data and its usage has recently become more mainstream.

Data, data, and even more data is being collected on a gigantic enormous  scale.  Technology created it and is collecting it.  Business decisions and policies which affect our lives are being driven by it.  Retail transactions, social media use, search queries, electronic health records,  and our smart phones are just some of the sources feeding data collection (did you know that your  phone’s wifi signal is tracked by some retailers as you shop?).  Analysis of all this big data is a big business which has fortunately created a demand for IT specialists.

As an example, the CDC uses data collection from flu reporting and  flu samples to determine which flu strains are included in annual flu vaccines. With the aid of Google Flu Trends (data collected by Google searches on flu symptoms) current flu activity around the world can be estimated, even earlier than conventional CDC methods.

Another interesting example is predictive policing (forecasting where crime is likely to occur).  Fueled by big data analytics,  predictive policing is aiding in crime prevention.  A further illustration of big data, one which troubles me a bit is targeted marketing.  After searching for dresses online for an upcoming wedding, my Facebook account was suddenly inundated with dress ads.  Although I admit checking out a few of these ads it was a bit creepy seeing those ads pop up on Facebook after my online shopping spree.

Big data was recently added to The Oxford English Dictionary, defined as “data of a very large size, typically to the extent that its manipulation and management present significant logistical challenges.”  So by definition big data is “messy”.   Google Flu Trends  overestimated US flu outbreaks in 2012, whereas its prediction was fairly accurate in past years.   The decisions made from the analysis of big data are only as good as the analytics behind them, subject of course to human error and changing data.

Don’t be surprised as you start to hear more and more about big data.  Instead of Big Brother we have Big Data collecting us, storing us, sorting us, trending us, suggesting to us, but also hopefully curing us, making us safer, and enriching the quality of our lives without too much risk to whatever privacy we may still retain!

Internet Privacy?

The Internet despite all its wonderful splendor, has certainly diminished our privacy, such that the concept of Internet privacy is really an oxymoron.  Have you Googled your name lately?  It can be quite eye-opening to see what comes up – real estate transactions, social media comments, boat registrations, political contributions, things you might not expect that will certainly surprise you.  There are companies that you can pay for search engine cleanups, but the average person would not bother.

Wienergate prompts me to reinforce this message, which hopefully we all already know.   Anything you create digitally might be seen by someone other than you intended, this includes emails, Facebook posts, Twitter tweets, LinkedIn messages, Craigslist posts, text messages, etc.  Data from these applications sits on file servers of the service provider, and access to your data or account passwords could be subpoenaed in court.   Additionally, though you may erase a file from your hard drive, it is still there until written over. 

In many cases when we are online we have the right to control our information, to make a decision regarding who we are sharing with.  On Facebook I can decide to hide my profile from search engines, and only share my photos with friends, so I feel relatively safe and private.  However my profile picture can be seen by anyone who searches for me on Facebook, and a simple right click on my photo makes it available for copying and downloading.   I know I don’t like this, but I still keep my profile picture posted, as do millions of others.  This is not a Facebook issue, you can copy most content from websites this way.

If there is something you need to keep private, then keep it away from your computer and cell phone – this includes files, emails, Tweets, Facebook content,  text messages, anything digital.  My advice is be careful and cautious regarding your online and offline content as we really don’t know where the path of our digital footprint is heading!

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