The European Commission took the opportunity presented by a November 7 memo to release a fact sheet explaining the idea of what ‘Big Data’ is. Although no official reason for why the memo was necessary has been offered, the language of the fact sheet suggests that the Commission intended to educate the average consumer about Big Data.
The definition of Big Data offered by the Commission is as follows:
“Every minute the world generates 1.7 million billion bytes of data, equivalent to 360,000 standard DVDs. More digitised data was created in the last two years than in the rest of human history. This trend and the mountains of data it produces is what we call ‘Big data’.”
The authors of the fact sheet went on to pose the question of why Big Data is important. Their explanation was one of how the vast amount of data collected on a daily basis is now being used to improve everything from farming to public health. The Commission cited the 5%-6% efficiency gains in the business sector as sufficient reason to embrace Big Data in every area of life.
An example of how Big Data affects the average consumer can be found in the agricultural sector. The memo speaks of a farmer whose future operation is plugged into the system in order to glean from the mountains of data collected from around the world. It would be used to determine what crops to grow, when to plough and sow, and what markets will be most suitable at harvest. It can even be used for equipment automation.
The Good and The Bad
The European Commission's Big Data memo did a very good job of presenting the topic in a positive light however true objectivity requires us to look at both sides of the equation. Yes, Big Data is capable of improving efficiency and effectiveness on many levels, but it could also being incredibly harmful.
One example cited in the memo explained Big Data could be used to avoid a worldwide epidemic by identifying trends on social networking sites like Facebook. Seemingly innocuous statements, like someone mentioning that they are in bed with the flu, apparently allow those in the Big Data community to establish where future problems might arise. On the surface that sounds good… but is it really?
If a government health organisation could put that type of data to use for the benefit of citizens, it could put other types of data to use to everyone's detriment. Moreover, simply assuming that the government would never do such a thing is to turn a blind eye to history.
Big Data does have many positive implications for everything from IT services to networking to worldwide data communications. It has many positive implications for humanitarian efforts and education however it is something that must be treated with the utmost respect and caution. Without proper safeguards and effective enforcement means that Big Data could be a digital disaster, waiting to overwhelm the world.