Carl: Yes, “Big Data” is tracking you (among other things).
Most people have heard the term “big data,” but few know exactly what it means. To make matters worse, the term can mean pretty significantly different things in different domains. For the sake of simplicity, we’ll begin by focusing on a very relatable aspect of big data: building user profiles, such as the kind Facebook and Google create of their users.
This is rather limited in its scope, but can serve as a helpful introduction to the concept of big data.
Then we’ll move into broader applications and breakthroughs that big data is making possible.
Companies have slowly been gathering huge amounts of data for years in the form of cookies, web traffic analysis, clicks, likes, retweets, web searches, and user-submitted forms. They also have data from other sources, such as their servers, sales numbers, software errors, and dozens of other items.
Historically, bringing all these data sources together and making sense of them has been impossible. That’s where big data comes in.
In this post we’re going to give you a high-level overview of big data. Think of this as a primer of sorts – an introduction to the massive world of bits and bytes.
As a quick, yet very important side note, we want to point out that Blosm doesn’t do any sort of profile building or customer tracking as mentioned in this article. It’s simply not part of our business model. However, because it’s so familiar to people, it can provide a helpful onramp.
What Is Big Data?
First, let’s clarify what we mean when we say “big data”. It’s a huge term that can cover a variety of circumstances, but we’ll give you a simple definition.
Generally speaking, big data refers to the massive amounts of data, both structured and unstructured, generated by the hardware and software used by businesses. This covers everything from web visits to customer service tickets to CRM contacts to server reports.
Normally, this data is not connected in any meaningful way. In other words, it’s difficult to gather, sort, compare, and analyze this data in a single location because the data itself is so spread out.
Big data companies typically provide solutions for bringing all this data together in a single location.
Another way to put it is techniques for gaining insights using data at a scale (with all of the issues that are introduced such as inconsistent structure, noise, etc.) that would be impossible with traditional databases.
In other words, you’ve got a lot of data from hundreds of sources that would normally never be able to be gathered, sorted, and analyzed. Big data tools, however, make that possible.
Why Big Data Matters For Every Business of Every Size
Now let’s talk specifically about big data and the type of profile building we mentioned at the outset.
Even the smallest websites and online businesses gather data from their customers. If anyone visits a website, they leave some form of “footprints” that show they were there.
This can be anything from simple analytics, such as how many people visited a site, where they came from, and what search terms brought them, to more complex data such as leads, website errors, server errors, customer submission forms, sales, refunds, etc.
Normally, this data would be stored in various forms in various databases, none of which could easily be connected. Big data tools allow these massive, disparate forms of data to be mined for insights that would normally be impossible to see.
Even those businesses that never thought they had much to gain from running big data analysis will soon realize that data is an asset that can be used to improve their business, through better serving their customers or making their customer acquisition more efficient and cost-effective.
Big data can be as simple as knowing how people found your website and what they were looking for that led them there. But it can also be much more complex, and this is when big data becomes less of a simple business tool and more of a complicated intersection of ethics and services.
Big Data Is Watching
To be clear, when used properly, big data analysis can allow businesses to achieve things they never thought possible. It can be used by government agencies to determine where disease epidemics originate, by eCommerce businesses to better serve their customers, and by hospitals to reduce human error.
This is big data at its best.
But if it’s misused, problems can arise.
Let’s use Google and Facebook as examples.
Google studies every keystroke ever entered on its search engine, Chrome web browser, and ubiquitous suite of services and tools like Gmail, Google Calendar, and Google Maps.
It creates a cross-referenced ecosystem of searches, plans, map routes, and websites visited to create profiles of every web user, then studies these to identify patterns and better tailor the ads it shows people, thus increasing its advertising effectiveness, which makes its ads more valuable to potential advertisers.
The more you use Google, the more data points you create, and the more detailed a profile they can create of you.
Not wanting to be left out of the action, Facebook also does its best to track as much of your web activity as possible. Now that the social media giant also owns Instagram and WhatsApp, it has a monopoly on three of the world’s most popular social media apps, which gives it staggering insight into how we spend our time online and what we like to look at.
Every like, every video watched, every comment made, every photo posted – it’s all stored, and then cross-referenced against the data created by the other 2 billion users. The truth is that Facebook has a staggering amount of data about each of its users (some estimates put it over 50,000 unique data points).
Have you noticed an uptick in Facebook suggesting “friends” that are random people you’ve never met in real life? This is big data at work. The social media giant is trying to create its own irresistible ecosystem that keeps users in it for as long as possible, while learning as much about their interests as it can. This is all in the name of ad revenue. The more effective its targeted ads are, the higher prices it can charge advertisers.
There is also a concern that Facebook and Google are using the microphones on mobile phones to gather data. It’s not especially easy to determine exactly what data is being transmitted from our phones, especially when they’re on cellular networks rather than wifi (router traffic is much easier to analyze).
While the verdict is out on whether our phones actually listen to us or not (of course, all the major brands like Google and Facebook vehemently deny using microphone capabilities for advertising purposes), the ads certainly seem to be more uncanny than even the aggregate of all our search histories and browsing habits.
Brands insist that this is big data at work, while all of us wonder if this is any more or less creepy than if they actually just listened to us.
The Good Side of Big Data
Like we said, big data also offer tremendous opportunities to businesses. While there are certainly privacy aspects at stake, big data can also be used for great good.
Big data analysis engines can analyze data gathered from all sorts of sensors, data, and images to do everything from predict weather patterns and crop yield to identifying new risk factors for various health conditions.
It can also work to gather and crunch disparate numbers and data points, which makes it easier to do things like compare various airline prices, hotel rates, or product descriptions.
Additionally, big data tools are making technological breakthrough possible that previously seemed like science fiction. Self-driving cars? Big data. Artificial intelligence? Big data. Smart homes, nanotechnology, and privatized space exploration? Big data.
Just like the name suggests, big data applications gather and analyze large amounts of data to generate insights and make predictions about future events or patterns. With the massive amount of data generated by billions of humans, sensors, and devices every day, big data analytics are constantly discovering patterns that were previously hidden or unrecognizable in a given sample size or with traditional human analysis methods.
Using powerful computer models to run millions of different analyses simultaneously, big data applications can parse through dead ends and promising leads alike to offer up the most valuable insights for any given field.
From John Deere tractors that learn how, when, and where farmers use its agricultural tools to remote weather stations that all send data to centralized systems which then predict future weather events, big data analytics is solving real-world problems much more important than helping you choose your next pair of earbuds.
And when it does come to online data, an entire industry is emerging of analysis as a service, which means that third-party providers crunch big data to provide companies with comprehensive learning and actionable advice stemming from data that their websites are already gathering.
This data can also be used to fine-tune cloud-based business services, allowing end users to buy and maintain the exact amount of space and services that they need for their given business operations. Big data as a service is an emerging and important field, and anyone with a vested interest in digital services should keep an eye on it as time progresses.
The Future of Big Data
Today, Google seems to read our minds when we type the first word (or even letter) of a potential query into the search bar. Tomorrow, not only will web browsers predict our searching and browsing habits, but they will provide ever more tailored and pertinent advertisements, search results, and user experiences to everyone who uses smartphones and other web-enabled devices.
More importantly, brands will seamlessly meld hardware and software to bring big data to ever more products, which means that better fitting clothing, incredible personal analytics on athletic and general wellness endeavors, less traffic, fresher fruit, and countless other life-improving metrics are just around the corner.
By learning how and where people shop, travel, and recreate, various industries will be able to better serve their customers and end users, which reduces waste and improves user experience whether we are talking about newspaper deliveries or vacation packages.
Big data is already tracking people’s movements in order to predict traffic patterns, shopping habits, and what types of businesses different demographics are most interested in. As tracking becomes better and analysis software becomes more powerful, these insights will only grow more valuable and will further sharpen our “user experience” in everyday life–from commuting to visiting the mall to shopping online.
And in a time when many places are dealing with environmental crises or growing populations, a bit more agricultural efficiency and less traffic are good things indeed. Besides, if you’re going to see in an ad in your social media feed, it might as well be something you’re at least sort of interested in, right?