How Good is Big Data?

If we’re going to defend Big Data, let’s start out by describing what it is. It’s a useful exercise, because the term has been used to confound and perplex, and serve a multitude of agendas.

Defining Big Data

Big Data is basically a stream, actually more a torrent, of data which is now possible to record and monitor thanks to advances in technology. If data can be interpreted correctly with smart algorithms and fast computers, Big Data will certainly provide new insights into the workings of our complex world. The insight might even give us room to predict the future, and, if we can respond fast enough, we may be able to prevent diseases, avert costly man-made mistakes or act before natural disasters strike.

Big data implies things that were hidden from view until they became visible through their traceability, accessibility or storability on the Internet and through much greater computing power. Big Data might be, for example, the number and nature of website visits in the hours following the Super Bowl that helps marketers understand buying behavior. Or the mobile networking and calling activity that may help to trace bothersome data overload – or, more sinisterly, to keep an eye on you.

It may be the geographical whereabouts of the search term “influenza symptoms”, that would help track the spread of the disease across the globe. Or the vast banks of genomic information that offer tempting opportunities to link population-wide genetic mutations to disease. Or it could be all the credit card numbers and PIN codes used in New York last Saturday, that are stored on a DVD and accidentally misplaced.

Using data for good

You might see the implications for doing good, as well as for doing a great deal of damage.

One of the main arguments in favor of Big Data solutions is that you can analyze all the data, not just a sample. This really helps you to spot the data outliers that may give you valuable information, like the pockets of resistance to Ebola.

Another argument in its favor is the opportunity to analyze things as they happen, regardless of the amount of data. This might give us the edge so that we can predict when something is about to happen, and therefore act appropriately. Fluctuations in air temperature are being used to predict tsunamis, allowing evacuations to proceed in a calm and orderly fashion.

Private data

In digital health, one of the implicit interpretations of Big Data is: Your Data. It may be your patient journal – one amongst millions that are already available on the Internet. It may be your DNA – used by researchers to understand your risk of getting Alzheimer’s Disease and therefore treating it before it becomes a fact. It might be your MRI scan, being transmitted across the globe to be diagnosed by exactly the right specialist.

So how good is Big Data? That’s like asking how good is the discovery of atomic energy. It was always there, and it was always going to be discovered. Big Data is the language of the planet, speaking a zillion words a second. It’s finally revealing its true nature to us. Given the right checks and balances, we will be able to hear the most profound messages.


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