Big Data: Finding the patterns in the noise

Aquila Magazine (kids 8-12) – May 2015

Scan 3Big Data: Finding the patterns in the noise

We create over 2.5 quintillion bytes of data every day – that’s a lot of text, pictures, video and social media messages. Powerful computers can analyse this “Big Data” and find new patterns, and maybe even hints about the future.

How much data exists in the world? Nobody really knows, but we are creating more and more every day. The numbers are so big they hardly make sense: over 2.5 quintillion bytes of data is added every day, according to IBM – a quintillion is 1 followed by 18 zeros. There’s a name for all this – we call it “Big Data”.

So what do we mean when we say “data”? It’s everything that comes through a computer, yes, but it includes not only all the text, but lots of other things too like voice recordings and video. So when we look at data we’re not just counting text stored by businesses, newspapers and libraries, but also social media posts, online shopping orders, internet chats, and all those videos of cats jumping into boxes.

Today’s powerful computers can be used to analyse all this data and keep track of it, even as it’s growing at an ever-increasing pace. Over 90% of all data was created in the last few years alone, as technology has become more accessible and easy to use for a lot more people. The ideal outcome of collecting all this information is that we will be able to see new patterns, which may even be able to tell us about the future. One example is Google Flu Trends, which essentially looked at who was searching the web for flu symptoms, where those people lived, and used that data to predict where the next flu outbreak was going to be.

Big Data analysis is not perfect – after all, not everyone who looks up symptoms on the internet is sick. But as we collect more types of data we should be able to be more specific in our predictions. For example, futuristic refrigerators can email you shopping lists when you’ve run out of food, and a town will soon be able to monitor which parking lots are full and lead visitors to the nearest vacant spot by sending them a text message. All this is data too, and if these details, and millions of others, are put together, we may be able to see some surprising connections.

Farmers are already able to use Big Data analysis to work out which fields need what kind of fertiliser, and there are great possibilities in the field of medicine. For instance, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in the US is using Big Data to analyse scans of the brain: “When you record information from the brain, you don’t know the best way to get the information that you need out of it. Every data set is different,” said Mischa Ahrens, one of the researchers. Scanning the vastly complex brain creates so much information it can be overwhelming, but Big Data analysis has made it possible for researchers to test out ideas faster. This will hopefully cut down the time it takes to come up with new treatments for illnesses.

Big Data is being used for strictly fun purposes too: sports fans who like to watch the replays and study the match statistics have increasingly more data to play with. During the Wimbledon Championship, a service called the Slamtracker gives tennis buffs access to data collected from eight years of tournaments. This means people can look up their favourite players’ performance statistics and playing styles, and even get victory predictions based on the backgrounds of their opponents.

While there’s no doubly the opportunities are vast, one question remains: who owns Big Data? This is especially important as we give away more and more information about ourselves on the internet, often in exchange for using services like email or social media without having to pay. Companies like Facebook and Twitter assure us information belongs to users, but the companies are still using this information to sell advertising. And what about the data collected by the phone company? Even if they’re not listening to what we are saying, the time, duration and location of a call is data too. Right now, companies are often using data about people anonymously, meaning they look at how many people did something and where they were, but the names are kept out of it.
As we continue to gather data, Big Data analysts will be able to glean more and more insights that will hopefully help us create products and services to make life better. A deli can use Big Data to work out which sandwiches sell best in what weather, for example, and make sure they don’t run out. Airlines can crunch the numbers to come up with a quicker way to board airplanes, and towns can use traffic flow analysis to prevent queues.

It’s exciting to think about what we can do with our new power of Big Data analysis, and this is only the beginning. “Big Data marks the start of a major transformation,” said authors Kenneth Cukier and Viktor Mayer-Schonberger in their book ‘Big Data’. “Just as the telescope enabled us to comprehend the universe and the microscope allowed us to understand germs, the new techniques for collecting and analysing huge bodies of data will help us make sense of our world in ways we are just starting to appreciate.”

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Published by Jessica Furseth

Journalist; Londoner.