The term ‘Big Data’ is as massive in management and technology as Justin Bieber and Miley Cyrus are in music. Like with other mega buzzwords, many say big data is all talk and no action. This couldn’t be further from the truth. With this post, I want to show how big data is used today to add real value.
Eventually, every aspect of our lives will be affected by big data. However, there are some areas where big data is already making a real difference today. I have categorized the application of big data into 10 areas where I see the most widespread use as well as the highest benefits [For those of you who would like to take a step back here and understand, in simple terms, what big data is, check out the posts in my Big Data Guru column].
1. Understanding and Targeting Customers
This is one of the biggest and most publicized areas of big data use today. Here, big data is used to better understand customers and their behaviors and preferences. Companies are keen to expand their traditional data sets with social media data, browser logs as well as text analytics and sensor data to get a more complete picture of their customers. The big objective, in many cases, is to create predictive models. You might remember the example of U.S. retailer Target, who is now able to very accurately predict when one of their customers will expect a baby. Using big data, Telecom companies can now better predict customer churn; Wal-Mart can predict what products will sell, and car insurance companies understand how well their customers actually drive. Even government election campaigns can be optimized using big data analytics. Some believe, Obama’s win after the 2012 presidential election campaign was due to his team’s superior ability to use big data analytics.
2. Understanding and Optimizing Business Processes
Big data is also increasingly used to optimize business processes. Retailers are able to optimize their stock based on predictions generated from social media data, web search trends and weather forecasts. One particular business process that is seeing a lot of big data analytics is supply chain or delivery route optimization. Here, geographic positioning and radio frequency identification sensors are used to track goods or delivery vehicles and optimize routes by integrating live traffic data, etc. HR business processes are also being improved using big data analytics. This includes the optimization of talent acquisition – Moneyball style, as well as the measurement of company culture and staff engagement using big data tools.
3. Personal Quantification and Performance Optimization
Big data is not just for companies and governments but also for all of us individually. We can now benefit from the data generated from wearable devices such as smart watches or smart bracelets. Take the Up band from Jawbone as an example: the armband collects data on our calorie consumption, activity levels, and our sleep patterns. While it gives individuals rich insights, the real value is in analyzing the collective data. In Jawbone’s case, the company now collects 60 years worth of sleep data every night. Analyzing such volumes of data will bring entirely new insights that it can feed back to individual users. The other area where we benefit from big data analytics is finding love – online this is. Most online dating sites apply big data tools and algorithms to find us the most appropriate matches.
4. Improving Healthcare and Public Health
The computing power of big data analytics enables us to decode entire DNA strings in minutes and will allow us to find new cures and better understand and predict disease patterns. Just think of what happens when all the individual data from smart watches and wearable devices can be used to apply it to millions of people and their various diseases. The clinical trials of the future won’t be limited by small sample sizes but could potentially include everyone! Big data techniques are already being used to monitor babies in a specialist premature and sick baby unit. By recording and analyzing every heart beat and breathing pattern of every baby, the unit was able to develop algorithms that can now predict infections 24 hours before any physical symptoms appear. That way, the team can intervene early and save fragile babies in an environment where every hour counts. What’s more, big data analytics allow us to monitor and predict the developments of epidemics and disease outbreaks. Integrating data from medical records with social media analytics enables us to monitor flu outbreaks in real-time, simply by listening to what people are saying, i.e. “Feeling rubbish today – in bed with a cold”.
5. Improving Sports Performance
Most elite sports have now embraced big data analytics. We have the IBM SlamTracker tool for tennis tournaments; we use video analytics that track the performance of every player in a football or baseball game, and sensor technology in sports equipment such as basket balls or golf clubs allows us to get feedback (via smart phones and cloud servers) on our game and how to improve it. Many elite sports teams also track athletes outside of the sporting environment – using smart technology to track nutrition and sleep, as well as social media conversations to monitor emotional wellbeing.
6. Improving Science and Research
Science and research is currently being transformed by the new possibilities big data brings. Take, for example, CERN, the Swiss nuclear physics lab with its Large Hadron Collider, the world’s largest and most powerful particle accelerator. Experiments to unlock the secrets of our universe – how it started and works – generate huge amounts of data. The CERN data center has 65,000 processors to analyze its 30 petabytes of data. However, it uses the computing powers of thousands of computers distributed across 150 data centers worldwide to analyze the data. Such computing powers can be leveraged to transform so many other areas of science and research.
7. Optimizing Machine and Device Performance
Big data analytics help machines and devices become smarter and more autonomous. For example, big data tools are used to operate Google’s self-driving car. The Toyota Prius is fitted with cameras, GPS as well as powerful computers and sensors to safely drive on the road without the intervention of human beings. Big data tools are also used to optimize energy grids using data from smart meters. We can even use big data tools to optimize the performance of computers and data warehouses.
8. Improving Security and Law Enforcement.
Big data is applied heavily in improving security and enabling law enforcement. I am sure you are aware of the revelations that the National Security Agency (NSA) in the U.S. uses big data analytics to foil terrorist plots (and maybe spy on us). Others use big data techniques to detect and prevent cyber attacks. Police forces use big data tools to catch criminals and even predict criminal activity and credit card companies use big data use it to detect fraudulent transactions.
9. Improving and Optimizing Cities and Countries
Big data is used to improve many aspects of our cities and countries. For example, it allows cities to optimize traffic flows based on real time traffic information as well as social media and weather data. A number of cities are currently piloting big data analytics with the aim of turning themselves into Smart Cities, where the transport infrastructure and utility processes are all joined up. Where a bus would wait for a delayed train and where traffic signals predict traffic volumes and operate to minimize jams.
10. Financial Trading
My final category of big data application comes from financial trading. High-Frequency Trading (HFT) is an area where big data finds a lot of use today. Here, big data algorithms are used to make trading decisions. Today, the majority of equity trading now takes place via data algorithms that increasingly take into account signals from social media networks and news websites to make, buy and sell decisions in split seconds.
For me, the 10 categories I have outlined here represent the areas in which big data is applied the most. Of course there are so many other applications of big data and there will be many new categories as the tools become more widespread.
What do you think? Do you agree or disagree with this data revolution? Are you excited or apprehensive? Can you think of other areas where big data is used? Please share your views and comments.