Living by the Numbers: Big Data Knows What Your Future Holds

The expression "Big Brother" has become dated. Experts would seem to have reached consensus on the term "Big Data" to describe the new favorite topic of discussion in boardrooms, at conventions like Berlin's re:publica last week, and in a number of new books. Big Data promises both total control and the logical management of our future in all aspects of life. Authors like Oxford Professor Victor Mayer-Schönberger are calling it a "revolution." According to Mayer-Schönberger, Big Data, which is also the title of his current book on the subject, will change our working environment and even the way we think.

The most important factor is not the sheer volume of data, even though it is currently growing faster than ever. An estimated 2.8 zettabytes of data were created in 2012. One zettabyte is 1,000,000,000,000,000,000 kilobytes. Experts predict that the volume of new data could increase to 40 zettabytes by 2020. It would take about 250 million DVDs to store the amount of data being transmitted on the Internet in a single day. This volume doubles about once every two years.

New is the way companies, government agencies and scientists are now beginning to interpret and analyze their data resources. Because storage space costs almost nothing nowadays, computers, which are getting faster and faster, can link and correlate a wide variety of data around the clock. Algorithms are what create order from this chaos. They dig through, discovering previously unknown patterns and promptly revealing new relationships, insights and business models.

Though the term Big Data means very little to most people, the power of algorithms is already everywhere. Credit card companies can quickly recognize unusual usage patterns, and hence automatically warn cardholders when large sums are suddenly being charged to their cards in places where they have never been. Energy companies use weather data analyses to pinpoint the ideal locations for wind turbines down to the last meter. According to official figures, since the Swedish capital Stockholm began using algorithms to manage traffic, drive times through the city's downtown area have been cut in half and emissions reduced by 10 percent. Online merchants have recently started using the analyses to optimize their selling strategies. The widespread phrase "Customers who bought this item also bought …" is only one example of the approach.

Turning Data into Dollars

Google and Facebook are pure, unadulterated Big Data. Their business models are based on collecting, analyzing and marketing information about their users, through advertising tailored as closely as possible to the individual. This gigantic database and the notion of what can be done with more than a billion individual profiles in the age of Big Data was worth at least $100 billion (€78 billion) to Facebook investors.

The prospect of turning their treasure troves of data into dollars is now fueling the fantasies of businesses in many industries, from supermarkets to the automobile industry, and from aviation to banks and insurance companies. According to figures published by industry association Bitkom, global sales related to Big Data applications amounted to €4.6 billion in 2012. That number is expected to increase to about €16 billion by 2016.

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