What do you think of when you think of “big data”?
For many, it’s a nebulous term that invokes images of huge server farms humming away. Or perhaps you think of receiving some kind of personalized advertisement from a retailer.
But big data is so much deeper and broader than that. I believe there are 10 major areas in which big data is currently being used to excellent advantage in practice – but within those arenas, data can be put to almost any purpose.
1. Understanding and Targeting Customers
This is one of the biggest and most publicized areas of big data use today. Here, big data is used to better understand customers and their behaviors and preferences. Companies are keen to expand their traditional data sets with social media data, browser logs as well as text analytics and sensor data to get a more complete picture of their customers. The big objective, in many cases, is to create predictive models.
You might remember the example of U.S. retailer Target, who is now able to very accurately predict when one of their customers will expect a baby. Using big data, Telecom companies can now better predict customer churn; Wal-Mart can predict what products will sell; and car insurance companies understand how well their customers actually drive.
Ski resorts are even using data to understand and target their patrons. RFID tags inserted into lift tickets can cut back on fraud and wait times at the lifts, as well as help ski resorts understand traffic patterns, which lifts and runs are most popular at which times of day, and even help track the movements of an individual skier if he were to become lost.
Imagine being an avid skier and receiving customized invitations from your favorite resort when there’s fresh powder on your favorite run, or text alerts letting you know when the lift lines are shortest. They’ve also taken the data to the people, providing websites and apps that will display your day’s stats, from how many runs you slalomed to how many vertical feet you traversed, which you can then share on social media or use to compete with family and friends.
Even government election campaigns can be optimized using big data analytics. Some believe Obama’s win after the 2012 presidential election campaign was due to his team’s superior ability to use big data analytics.
2. Understanding and Optimizing Business Processes
Big data is also increasingly used to optimize business processes. Retailers are able to optimize their stock based on predictions generated from social media data, web search trends and weather forecasts.
One particular business process that is seeing a lot of big data analytics is supply chain or delivery route optimization. Here, geographic positioning and radio frequency identification sensors are used to track goods or delivery vehicles and optimize routes by integrating live traffic data, etc. HR business processes are also being improved using big data analytics.
This includes the optimization of talent acquisition – Moneyball style – as well as the measurement of company culture and staff engagement using big data tools. For example, one company, Sociometric Solutions, puts sensors into employee name badges that can detect social dynamics in the workplace. The sensors report on how employees move around the workplace, with whom they speak, and even the tone of voice they use when communicating.
One of the company’s clients, Bank of America, noticed that its top performing employees at call centers were those who took breaks together. They instituted group break policies and performance improved 23 percent.
You may have seen the RFID tags you can attach to things like your phone, your keys, or your glasses, which can then help you locate those things when they inevitably get lost. But suppose you could take that technology to the next level and createsmart labels that could stick on practically anything. Plus, they can tell you a lot more than just where a thing is; they can tell you its temperature, the moisture level, whether or not it’s moving, and more.
Suddenly, this unlocks a whole new realm of “small data;” if big data is looking at vast quantities of information and analyzing it for patterns, then small data is about looking at the data for an individual product – say, a container of yogurt in a shipment – and being able to know if it’s likely to go off before it reaches the store.
This part of the Internet of Things holds incredible promise for improving everything from logistics to health care, and I believe we’re still just on the cusp of understanding what this incredible technology can do – as when electricity was only used to power light bulbs.
3. Personal Quantification and Performance Optimization
Big data is not just for companies and governments but also for all of us individually. We can now benefit from the data generated from wearable devices such as smart watches or smart bracelets. Take the Up band from Jawbone as an example: the armband collects data on our calorie consumption, activity levels, and our sleep patterns. While it gives individuals rich insights, the real value is in analyzing the collective data.
In Jawbone’s case, the company now collects 60 years worth of sleep data every night. Analyzing such volumes of data will bring entirely new insights that it can feed back to individual users.
The other area where we benefit from big data analytics is finding love – online this is. Most online dating sites apply big data tools and algorithms to find us the most appropriate matches.