Big Data in the Real World

Practical uses for Big Data aren’t merely theoretical—they’re here and now. Here are five ways innovative people and companies are making huge information streams work for them:

Desktop Warriors. Crunching a huge amount of publicly available Wikileaks information about the war in Afghanistan, New York University Ph.D. student Drew Conway was able to draw some conclusions about peak periods and locations of conflict, according to a report by Gigaom. Conway, who runs the Zero Intelligence Agents blog, organized the Big Data dump by geography and by the nature of encounters (hostile or friendly) between U.S. troops and Afghans. The conclusions lent credence to the idea that conflict with the Taliban tends to peak during certain seasons and is concentrated around the Ring Road that surrounds the capital of Kabul.

Sales Targets. British supermarket chain Tesco has experienced a 12 percent uptick in sales during early trials using data analysis to determine which top-selling items to discount and when. Tesco’s recently acquired subsidiary Dunnhumby, a shopping information company, tracked sales data from 16 million families, who make approximately 6 million transactions a day using Tesco Clubcards to accrue reward points. The company also profits from the sale of its shopping preference data to other businesses. The program is not without controversy, however, because some critics say shoppers aren’t told their information is being used for Tesco’s profit. The company says it’s only identifying trends, not offering a peek into its customers’ lives.

Who’s Driving Our Kids? Not all uses for Big Data are highly complex or technical. In Iowa, Gov. Terry Branstad signed into law a new mandate that school bus drivers will be subject to background checks. To pass muster, an applicant has to survive a search of public records—including the sex offender registry, the central registry for child abuse, files on dependent adult abuse and driving infractions, if any. These records aren’t sequestered for official use, as they once were, but available online through the Iowa Courts Online Search. The procedure has to be followed every five years, when the driver renews his license. The record shows that data cross-checks can be valuable in keeping kids out of harm’s way. An Oregon school bus driver was arrested in 2010 after a forensic computer investigation found eight child pornography videos on a social networking site that had been uploaded with his email address and password. He received a seven-year sentence and, needless to say, won’t be driving any more kids to school.

Charged by the Volt. General Motors was the first auto manufacturer to deliver a full range of services, from finding your lost car in a parking lot to emergency response and driving directions, through the wireless connectivity of its OnStar service. Through OnStar, GM now juggles an amazing three petabytes of data annually (one petabyte being equal to 1 quadrillion bytes). OnStar Chief Information Officer Jeffrey Liedel admits that GM hasn’t fully figured out how to make its data flow work for its customers and for the company’s bottom line. But it knows that OnStar will be of major benefit to its future electric car buyers, and is testing an app that will let drivers remotely check their battery charge and start or stop a charging session from the comfort of their living room lounge chair.

Predicting Global Crises. The United Nations’ Global Pulse initiative utilizes digital data such as social media chatter, mobile phone calls and online transactions to predict and better understand economic crises, health epidemics and natural disasters. Researchers with Pulse and the analytics software specialist SAS analyzed more than 500,000 blogs, online forums and news sites in Ireland and the U.S. to determine that social media chatter (particularly about “cutting back,” “public transportation usage” and “downgrading the car”) could predict spikes in unemployment that occurred three to five months later. Global Pulse researchers have also used digital data such as mobile phone usage to monitor the movement of people following Haiti’s 2010 earthquake as well as the spread of a subsequent cholera outbreak there.

Big Data is like an iceberg, with only a tiny bit of its practical uses visible to us. What’s exciting is what we’ll be able to do as the rest of the iceberg becomes visible. And of course, with privacy issues more at stake than ever, one must wonder: Will the discovery of this iceberg save the global economy, sink our humanity, or both?


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