... Tens of millions of connected people, billions of sensors, trillions of transactions now work to create unimaginable amounts of information. An equivalent amount of data is generated by people simply going about their lives, creating what the McKinsey Global Institute calls "digital exhaust"-data given off as a byproduct of other activities such as their Internet browsing and searching or moving around with their smartphone in their pocket.
Human-created information is only part of the story, a relatively shrinking part. Machines and implanted sensors in oceans, in the soil, in pallets of products, in gambling casino chips, in pet collars, and countless other places are generating data and sharing it directly with data "readers" and other machines that do not involve human intervention.
The projected growth of data from all kinds of sources is staggering-to the point where some worry that in the foreseeable future our digital systems of storage and dissemination will not be able to keep up with the simple act of finding places to keep the data and move it around to all those who are interested in it.
How could Big Data be significant? A 2011 industry report by global management consulting firm McKinsey argued that five new kinds of value might come from abundant data: 1) creating transparency in organizational activities that can be used to increase efficiency; 2) enabling more thorough analysis of employee and systems performances in ways that allow experiments and feedback; 3) segmenting populations in order to customize actions; 4) replacing/supporting human decision making with automated algorithms; and 5) innovating new business models, products, and services.
Imagine where we might be in 2020. The Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project and Elon University's Imagining the Internet Center asked digital stakeholders to weigh two scenarios for 2020, select the one most likely to evolve, and elaborate on the choice. One sketched out a relatively positive future where Big Data are drawn together in ways that will improve social, political, and economic intelligence. The other expressed the view that Big Data could cause more problems than it solves between now and 2020.
Respondents to our query rendered a decidedly split verdict.
53% agreed with the first statement:
Thanks to many changes, including the building of "the Internet of Things," human and machine analysis of large data sets will improve social, political, and economic intelligence by 2020. The rise of what is known as "Big Data" will facilitate things like "nowcasting" (real-time "forecasting" of events); the development of "inferential software" that assesses data patterns to project outcomes; and the creation of algorithms for advanced correlations that enable new understanding of the world. Overall, the rise of Big Data is a huge positive for society in nearly all respects .
39% agreed with the second statement, which posited:
Thanks to many changes, including the building of "the Internet of Things," human and machine analysis of Big Data will cause more problems than it solves by 2020. The existence of huge data sets for analysis will engender false confidence in our predictive powers and will lead many to make significant and hurtful mistakes. Moreover, analysis of Big Data will be misused by powerful people and institutions with selfish agendas who manipulate findings to make the case for what they want. And the advent of Big Data has a harmful impact because it serves the majority (at times inaccurately) while diminishing the minority and ignoring important outliers. Overall, the rise of Big Data is a big negative for society in nearly all respects.
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