The hidden value of BIG DATA

With the invention of computers, digitization and the Internet – the picture has changed considerably. Information can be collected passively (or with much less effort) and at greater speeds, and the cost of storage is increasingly economical. This has brought us to the advent of the big-data era. Although there is no formal definition, “big data” refers to both the data being captured on a much greater scale than previously possible, and the opportunities that data-sets of this size offer in terms of valuable insights discovered through analysis.


In 2009, Google provided a great example of the possibilities of big data when they published a research paper showing how they could analyze users’ search terms to predict the outbreak of flu and monitor its spread. They compared historical search-term data with data on the spread of flu in time and space from 2007 and 2008, and discovered 45 search terms that could be used in a formula to predict the spread of flu – a prediction which correlated strongly with official figures. Only weeks after the paper was published, the outbreak of the new deadly strain of flu, H1N1, hit the headlines. Google’s system was pressed into action and provided indicators that proved to be more useful and timely than government statistics in delivering valuable information to public health officials.


Big data provides insights we could not discover by analyzing data on a smaller scale.


With the rise of Internet companies such as Facebook and Twitter, and the popularity of smart devices, we have become familiar with things such as our relationship statuses, comments, preferences and location being stored as data that can then be analyzed. This trend is part of the process of datafication – capturing information about the world in the form of data. Because we can discover valuable insights from such data, we are likely to see the trend continue, with innovations in capturing data from sources we had not previously thought of as information.

Researchers are already harnessing sources of information we hadn’t previously considered as data. They aim to discover valuable insights into the ways we interact and behave, with an eye on creating innovative new products.


Data is increasingly being collected and put to use in all aspects of our lives, from the size of our bums to the way we walk.


But it’s also hard to spend any amount of time online these days without being presented with a lengthy user agreement at some point. But, be honest, do you actually read through them before agreeing to the terms?

Current privacy laws require that we are informed about what information is being collected and for what purpose, and that we then give consent, which is why we are bombarded with such requests. If the company then wants to share the data it collects, it uses anonymization – the stripping out of any personal details to preserve the privacy of the individuals – before publishing the data.

So when companies collect data, they generally have a specific purpose in mind: stores collect sales data for their financial accounting, factories monitor their output to track productivity, and websites track mouse movements over their pages to optimize their customers’ user experience. Big-data-savvy companies and individuals, are aware of the value of such data, are already designing products and systems to capitalize on the potential secondary uses of the data they and others collect.

Although data is generally collected for a specific purpose, there are often secondary applications that hold even greater value.



The movie Minority Report depicts a society where predictions have become so accurate that the police arrest the would-be criminal before he or she has a chance to commit the crime. People are imprisoned not for what they have done but for what they are foreseen to do. Although the movie is science fiction, predictions of human behavior are already used to guide certain decisions in society.


Therefore I question myself, with all the violence in the world. Would we be able to prevent attacks in the future? For example; the terror attack in Manchester? With Big Data we perhaps can prevent this! But can you really arrest someone before he/she commits a crime?


Combining sets of data can create greater value than the individual parts.


As an example, parole boards in more than half of all US states use data-analysis-based predictions of a prisoner’s chance of re-offending when deciding a prisoner’s fate. The police department in the United States is increasingly turning to “predictive policing” in order to allocate sparse resources. They use profiling – selecting individuals, groups and neighborhoods for additional scrutiny – based on characteristics seen as predictors of crime; for example, poverty, unemployment and drug-usage. Similar profiling measures are employed heavily in national security.

Yet, if misused, such methods can lead to problems of discrimination and “guilt by association.” How would you feel about being arrested on suspicion of terrorism based purely on your ethnicity, acquaintances and background?

While the additional level of detail available through big data may allow us to minimize these problems by targeting individuals rather than groups, this profiling trend is dangerous. Following this trend to its natural conclusion leads us to a world where we deny people their free will – where suspects are apprehended, patients are denied treatment or employees are dismissed – because of what they are predicted to do, not what they have done.



Big data facilitates the prediction of criminal behavior, but we must never judge someone before they have actually committed a crime.


We have already taken tentative steps down the road of using predictions to inform decisions in the realm of law and order. If we take this trend to its extreme, we deny individuals the possibility of moral choice, something we need to guard against.

Big data facilitates the prediction of criminal behavior, but we must never judge someone before they have actually committed a crime. But it could be a helping hand!


It’s clear that as economies are starting to form around data, more and more people are beginning to recognize the potential value of data and attempt to extract it. Individuals and companies that have a big-data mindset are best placed to capitalize on this data gold rush. Anyone can spot new opportunities to create value from the data around them – you just need the right mindset.


Think creatively to extract the hidden value from the data around you


Today anyone can create value from big data, you just have to stumble upon the right data and users.

  1. Start by considering what data you have access to and also what data is freely available, particularly online.
  2. Try to think of uses for the data that are different from the reason it was initially collected, and of how this data could serve different groups or organizations by being combined with other data.
  3. Finally, think about data from the point of view of different industries or businesses, and about how they could benefit from it.
  4. In doing so, you may stumble upon an idea for a new service or product that turns the data around you into an information gold mine.
  5. Please remember me:)








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