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Close Look: Big data - what’s the big story?

15 days ago

CLOSE LOOK
Big data - what’s the big story?

Data has proved to be a very valuable commodity in the 21st century. And big data even more so. Characterised by the 3 Vs, that is volume, variety and velocity, a new service industry has built up around the collection, collation and analysis of big data. But what can this analysis reveal and why are the results so highly prized?

The ‘digital age’ coincides with the beginning of this century, more precisely pinpointed at 2002. About this time, an individual’s digital storage capacity reached a critical point, having doubled every 40 months since the 1980s. That’s because electronic technology, such as handsets and laptops, became commonplace. The things we view, search for and buy online are logged, and this vast mass of data then analysed to reveal patterns of behaviour.

And here’s where the value in big data lies. If interpreted correctly, the data can act as a predictive tool. Online searching, purchasing and social contact all feed into a new area of study called behaviour analytics. Understanding consumer behaviour allows marketing companies to get ahead of buying trends. It can even allow governments to anticipate demand for infrastructure, such as schools or hospitals.

So much so that during the Covid-19 pandemic, big data has been front and centre in trying to minimise the spread of the disease. It’s a vital tool in contact tracing, as well as for case identification and even the development of medical treatments. Early adopters included China, South Korea, Taiwan and Israel. And all showed early success in controlling local outbreaks.

But there is always a downside. The skill in interpreting data lies in distinguishing clear signals from ‘noise’, which could lack relevance and mislead. And in the wrong hands big data can become a very powerful tool. In recent years, it has become clear that personal data, gleaned from social media, can be used to gain undue influence, for example during elections. Data protection remains critical and the opt out button an increasingly vital tool.

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