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Big data: seeing the forest and the trees

22 June 2013 No Comment

You can see the forest and the trees in big data, according to Nora Young, the Canadian author and the host of CBC Radio One’s Spark, in her opening keynote at last week’s Fireworks Factory conference held on Galiano Island, British Columbia. Her topic was “Big data as a new information ecosystem.”

English: CBC Radio personality Nora Young at t...

English: CBC Radio personality Nora Young at the Northern Voice 2009 conference in Vancouver, B.C., Canada (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“Harvard calls big data the sexiest job of the 21st Century. Big data matters to you as humans and a community and as a marketer,” Young told the audience of senior marketing strategists.

Big data is a collection of data sets so large and complex that they difficult to process with commonly used software tools.  Young said that we all generate data about our everyday lives. It’s the sum of all our interactions in the world.  For example, tools that used to be for elite athletes, like the Nike+ Fuelband, are now becoming ordinary things.  These collect data about how much oxygen is in a user’s blood, the sleeping heart rate and a lot of other biometric information. This information all becomes part of big data.

Young explained how a German green party politician took Deutsche Telecom to court to get his own cellphone data and realised that there were some 35,000 pieces of data  held for  2012. He then collaborated with a magazine to create a data map of his life.

“In short order, we’ve adopted these tools, and there is a  lot new ones coming out such as Google Glass and the Apple smart watch, Pebble, said Young. “Over the next two years we’ll be into constant seamless capture of data.

“We have a digital cloud around us. When these pieces come together and we have continual access to it, we have something much bigger than big data…it as new ecosystem of information.”

And it can be used for good.  For example, cellphone data was used to track the spread of cholera after the earthquake in Haiti.  And, Street Bump is a mobile application that lets people improve their own neighbourhoods.  As they drive, it collects data about the smoothness of the ride; that data provides real-time information required to fix problems and plan long-term investments.

“People want to share. They want to document the world around them.  And they want to do it in a way that’s easy,” said Young.  “But there are privacy and data ownership issues.”

Young gave an example of where two separate data sets came together to become something  ‘quite creepy’.  With Foursquare, a user could look to find people who are close by, like a woman in a nearby bar for instance.  Then, the user could use Facebook  to find out this woman’s  interests, where she went to school and who her friends are. Luckily, this data integration feature has now been disabled by Foursquare.

Another consideration is the reliability of data. Young said that there were 20 million tweets about Hurricane Sandy. “How do you understand it? It’s messy data. What is the context when messy data is good enough for us?” she asked the audience. “What are best practices?”

She suggested that the answer is to make participation valuable and to forge transparent partnerships with members of the public. A good example is Jana, a company that makes users a partner in their own data. It’s  a service that helps brands engage directly with people in emerging markets via mobile phones.  Jana uses airtime rewards as currency and conducts consumer research, product promotions and consumer loyalty campaigns.

Big data provides a real opportunity to marketers, according to Young, but companies must be seen as agents of trust. Businesses must be willing to share data sets with customers and others who are interested if they are to understand the value of the data and the economy of this new ecosystem.

Young concluded, “It’s a culture of shared contact between organizations and their communities.  The world isn’t sitting still for us. We have to change our data relationships for the good.”

Nora Young is the host of CBC Radio One’s Spark, which showcases technology, culture and life in the 21st Century.  The  June 11 to 13 Fireworks Factory web strategy conference was an invitation only event focused on insight and ideas.

This story was originally posted on the Thornley Fallis blog.

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