On a daily basis, Ben Kittrell translates the jargon-filled world of technology for clients of his tech consultancy. The Words that Frustrate (WTF) series aims to offer readers some clarity in an industry dominated by techies’ confusing argot.
I don’t remember if I had heard the term “Big Data” before 2012 but after attending South-by-Southwest that year I would never forget it.
Every business seemed to have a big data angle and featured it in almost every presentation. I even got a t-shirt that reads “I like big data and I cannot lie!” The hype has died down a little since then, but when I saw there was a big data Summit at TechWeek KC this year I thought it would be a good topic for WTF.
So what is big data?
Before big data, most applications only stored the information they absolutely needed to fulfill their basic function.
A social network app like Twitter would just store your login information and your tweets so others could see them. These companies started to realize there was a lot of value in the data you don’t see, like how people use the app. With storage costs plummeting they started to collect everything they could, regardless of whether they knew they could use it or not.
Twitter might collect what tweets you read, how long you looked at them, which ones you clicked on or what types of tweets you commonly retweet — any and everything they can break down.
As with most of these techie terms, big data is just a term used to describe a fairly simple concept with big implications. Big data represents the practice of collecting as much information about a user as possible, before you figure out what you’re going to do with it.
How are companies using it?
Companies like Facebook and Google are using big data to advertise to you everyday. Have you noticed how advertisements are getting more personal and targeted? Sometimes it’s creepy when Facebook suggests a product right when you need it. These companies use methods like behavioral targeting to track what you like, what websites you go to and how you “behave” on the web to find the best match for you.
Another example that you’ll start to see more of are predictive interfaces that predict how you might use an app based on past behavior. For example, a social network might use information about your location to determine you’re on vacation and ask if you want to automatically create a photo album. The more data or “context” they have, the easier it is to predict what you might want to do.
Should I be concerned about privacy?
You should always think about privacy on the Internet, but most companies that use big data have ways to protect it. It’s a common practice to anonymize or “hash” data, which puts it into a format that only a computer can understand. Most of the time it’s not important for them to know that Ben Kittrell went to Starbucks on Tuesday and took a picture of his coffee, but that someone did. It’s more valuable for them to know that it was a 34-year-old male that writes tech columns than my actual identity.
The way I look at it is that this data will improve your life more that it can harm it. Some friends of mine just told me a story about the husband getting a call that his wife was in an ambulance, but they didn’t know where it was going. He used her iPhone to track what hospital she was headed to. Big data to the rescue.