BIG DATA – benefits and challenges

New technologies tracking personal information, far too little regulation to protect such processes, companies and governments lying about or hidding what they are tracking. These are the first thoughts most of us have when hearing about Big Data and one of the reasons for that are recent events like the 2013 NSA mass surveillance scandal. However, there’s more to it than just mean endevours initiated by companies and governments: Big Data has great potential in generating new knowledge, improving medical research and accelerating technical innovation. As Big Data is on the rise, we need to examine the chances, limits and dangers of the rage for collecting!

The New York Time´s Gary Marcus and Ernest Davis write:

Big Data is suddenly everywhere. Everyone seems to be collecting it, analyzing it, making money from it and celebrating (or fearing) its powers. Whether we’re talking about analyzing zillions of Google search queries to predict flu outbreaks, or zillions of phone records to detect signs of terrorist activity, or zillions of airline stats to find the best time to buy plane tickets, big data is on the case. By combining the power of modern computing with the plentiful data of the digital era, it promises to solve virtually any problem – crime, public health, the evolution of grammar, the perils of dating – just by crunching the numbers.

Well, let’s see what Big Data CAN do.

The three V’s

Big Data is a term used to described the exponential growth and availability of data. By now, there is no universal definition although data analysts break it into three dimensions:

Volume – The general amount of data is increasing since they are generated by machines, networks and human interactions on systems like social media.

Variety – Data in all different kind of shapes and formats like emails, photos, videos, audio, PDFs and so on. This variety of unstructured data creates problems for storage, mining and analyzing data.

Velocity – Data streaming needs to be dealt with in a timely manner as  the flow of data is massive and continuous. Real-time data for example are used by businesses to make valuable decisions that provide strategic competitive advantages.

Ranging from big firms to small businesses and governments, theoretically everyone can profit and capitalize from Big Data. Firms can spot what their customers most likely want, governments what their citizens need. The amount of stored information allows – whoever understands its benefits – to take advantage for example in terms of personalized advertising and product placement. The danger of overlooking minorities and individual needs is imminent as the bulk counts. Getting pushed to join the prevailing mainstream could have a negative impact on the diversity and advances of a multicultural and global society.

Big Data and applied science

In science the biggest challenge is to consolidate and transform the big amount of available data into real and applicable knowledge. Natural sciences were hit by the explosion of data first and the founding of Open PHACTS was one of the first reactions to this new quality and quantity of information. It integrates pharmacological data from a variety of information resources and provides tools and services to question this integrated data to support pharmacological research. Gerhard Ecker, Professor of Pharmacoinformatics of the University of Vienna said, that this way the amount of work could be radically reduced.

Although convinced of and using Big Data himself, Bojan Zagrovic a molecular biologist from the University of Vienna speaks up for “small data”:

“I´ve got 150 Facebook friends, I watch their pictures and I am up to date what they are doing. But if I can meet a close friend and we can have a intimate conversation that´s another quality of information. It enriches my life and I probably will truly learn something.”

This is why scientists from various fields try to call attention on not to overrate the significance of empirical cognition and theoretical knowledge gained by Big Data. However useful, along the way there is a great number of questions that cannot be answered. For example: how to capture the peculiarity of a special gene by using Big Data or to understand human emotions behind certain actions? Those questions require a different approach which is just as important.


Playing with data

At the 2012 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Big Data was a sought-after topic. A report by the forum, Big Data, Big Impact, declared data a new class of economic asset, calling attention to the “potential for channeling these torrents of data into actionable information that can be used to identify needs & provide services for the benefit of low-income populations.”

Big Data is eclectic. So are the TED-Talks on this topic. Here’s a small collection we recommend:

Big Data and the Rise of Augmented Intelligence: Sean Gourley at TEDxAuckland

Immortality, big data, and tattoos: Juan Enriquez at TEDxNewEngland

Big Data, Small World: Kirk Borne at TEDxGeorgeMasonU

From big data to bigger ideas: Paul Verschure at TEDxBarcelona

Can Big Data authors end poverty?: Phillip Parker at TEDxSeattle

Big Data for the Common Good: Nitesh Chawla at TEDxUND

The beauty of data visualization: David McCandless at TED-Ed

Isn´t the range of possibilities to use Big Data fascinating? How would YOU use it? We´d like to hear your ideas on it!


Header Image credits: Royalty free


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