July 7, 2013


Every Breath You Take : The age of all-seeing, all-knowing information analytics is nearly upon us. : a review of Big Data: A Revolution That Will Transform How We Live, Work, and Think, by Viktor Mayer-Schonberger and Kenneth Cukier (MARK P. MILLS, 2 July 2013, City Journal)

Covering everything that's happening today with information technology in one book is a monumental challenge. As if to acknowledge that difficulty, Viktor Mayer-Schonberger and Kenneth Cukier, authors of Big Data, begin by describing the data's magnitude. They note, for instance, that the amount of data now stored around the world is an estimated 1,200 exabytes (itself an already dated and debatable number), which can be expressed as an equally incomprehensible 1.2 zettabytes. "If it were all printed in books, they would cover the entire surface of the United States some 52 layers thick."

Big Data's authors observe that humanity is marching into unfamiliar territory: "Ultimately big data marks the moment when the 'information society' finally fulfills the promise implied by its name. The data takes center stage. All those digital bits that we have gathered can now be harnessed in novel ways to serve new purposes and unlock new forms of value." Put more simply, the emergence of "big data"--whatever we think we mean by that term--marks the pivot in history when computing will finally become useful for nearly everyone and everything. In the end, what makes data useful is software--and truth be told, Big Data is really "just" about software. But if Mayer-Schonberger and Cukier had used the word "software"--now a tired term, by tech-media standards--in the title, their book might not have generated any excitement. Nonetheless, what they explore in fact is the next emergent era of software. [...]

Mayer-Schonberger and Cukier begin their exploration of analytics with an oft-cited example: Google data about the location and frequency of searches for "the flu" are already more effective in tracking the rise and vector of an epidemic than anything the Centers for Disease Control can do. By analyzing Google requests about mortgages, the Federal Reserve has made a similar discovery about tracking mortgage-market trends. No personal information is needed. This is true for traffic and equipment efficiency and safety, for disease research, and perhaps soon, for financial market forecasts and much more. The data speak volumes--when they're in sufficient volumes to matter.

Amazon has long used analytics to predict and personalize purchasing behaviors. Facebook's analytics about the trending behaviors and interests of its 1 billion users are perhaps its most valuable asset. But the implications go far beyond using data streams about Instagram posts, Amazon purchases, and Web clicks from e-commerce and consumer behavior, though these practices alone spook some people. The new era will involve data collected from all manner of human and machine activities--from exercise bands to heart monitors, from car and aircraft engines and tires to crops in farmers' fields and manufacturing machinery.

All of these data have value. Sometimes the data associated with an object, activity, or transaction have more value than the thing they measure. Experts in supply-chain logistics long ago figured out that the information about a shipping container's location is worth more than the physical container. Thus, one of Mayer-Schonberger and Cukier's most important insights: "Unlike material things--the food we eat, a candle that burns--data's value does not diminish when it is used; it can be processed again and again" and "used many times" for "multiple purposes." One could nitpick here and note that a variety of physical, not just virtual, things meet the same metrics--notably gold. But the authors' essential point is correct.

Soon big-data analytics will cross a Rubicon: we won't have to guess or approximate what's going on with many activities, we will know. Until now, given the scale and complexities of commerce, industry, society, and life, you couldn't measure everything; you approximated by statistical sampling and estimation. That era is almost over. We won't have to, for example, estimate how many cars are on a road, we will count each and every one in real time as well as hundreds of related facts about each car. Ditto soon for such things as your heartbeat or blood glucose, and much more.

You're generating more value when you surf the web than when you do your job.

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Posted by at July 7, 2013 6:33 AM

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