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Big Data 2013

Sizing Up Big Data, Broadening Beyond the Internet

By Steve Lohr
June 19, 2013 11:09 pm June 19, 2013 11:09 pm Photo<strong>HOW WE FEEL </strong>A visual representation of recent sentiment, as expressed on the Internet. Good feelings are brighter; negative ones are darker.HOW WE FEEL A visual representation of recent sentiment, as expressed on the Internet. Good feelings are brighter; negative ones are darker.Credit
In his young career, Jeffrey Hammerbacher has been a scout on the frontiers of the data economy.
Big Data 2013

A special section on the business and culture of big data.


In 2005, Mr. Hammerbacher, then a freshly minted Harvard graduate, did what many math and computing whizzes did. He went to Wall Street as a “quant,” building math models for complex financial products.

Looking for a better use for his skills, Mr. Hammerbacher departed to Silicon Valley less than a year later and joined Facebook. He started a team that began to mine the vast amounts of social network data Facebook was collecting for insights on how to tweak the service and target ads. He called himself and his co-workers “data scientists,” a term that has since become the hottest of job categories.

Facebook was a fabulous petri dish for data science. Yet after two and a half years, Mr. Hammerbacher decided it was time to move on, beyond social networks and Internet advertising. He became a founder of Cloudera, a start-up that makes software tools for data scientists.

Then, starting last summer, Mr. Hammerbacher, who is now 30, embarked on a very different professional path. He joined the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in Manhattan as an assistant professor, exploring genetic and other medical data in search of breakthroughs in disease modeling and treatment.

The goal, Mr. Hammerbacher said, is “to turn medicine into the land of the quants.”

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Big Data Will Get Bigger

The story is the same in one field after another, in science, politics, crime prevention, public health, sports and industries as varied as energy and advertising. All are being transformed by data-driven discovery and decision-making. The pioneering consumer Internet companies, like Google, Facebook and Amazon, were just the start, experts say. Today, data tools and techniques are used for tasks as varied as predicting neighborhood blocks where crimes are most likely to occur and injecting intelligence into hulking industrial machines, like electrical power generators.

Big Data is the shorthand label for the phenomenon, which embraces technology, decision-making and public policy. Supplying the technology is a fast-growing market, increasing at more than 30 percent a year and likely to reach $24 billion by 2016, according to a forecast by IDC, a research firm. All the major technology companies, and a host of start-ups, are aggressively pursuing the business.

Demand is brisk for people with data skills. The McKinsey Global Institute, the research arm of the consulting firm, projects that the United States needs 140,000 to 190,000 more workers with “deep analytical” expertise and 1.5 million more data-literate managers, whether retrained or hired, by 2020.

Yet the surveillance potential of Big Data, with every click stream, physical movement and commercial transaction monitored and analyzed, would strain the imagination of George Orwell. So what will be society’s ground rules for the collection and use of data? How do we weigh the trade-offs involving privacy, commerce and security? Those issues are just beginning to be addressed. The debate surrounding the recent disclosure that the National Security Agency has been secretly stockpiling telephone call logs of Americans and poring through e-mail and other data from major Internet companies is merely an early round.

Big Data is a vague term, used loosely, if often, these days. But put simply, the catchall phrase means three things. First, it is a bundle of technologies. Second, it is a potential revolution in measurement. And third, it is a point of view, or philosophy, about how decisions will be — and perhaps should be — made in the future.

The bundle of technologies is partly all the old and new sources of data — Web pages, browsing habits, sensor signals, social media, GPS location data from smartphones, genomic information and surveillance videos. The data surge just keeps rising, doubling in volume every two years. Just two days of the current global data production, from all sources — five quintillion bytes (a letter of text equals one byte) — is about equal to the amount of information created by all the world’s conversations, ever, according to research at the University of California, Berkeley.

Yet the importance of the sheer volume of data — and its exponential growth path — can be overstated. There’s a lot of water in the ocean, too, but you can’t drink it. Beyond advances in computer processing and storage, the other essential technology is the clever software to make sense of all that data. These are largely tools taken from the steadily evolving world of artificial intelligence, like machine learning.

The increasing volume and variety of data, combined with smart software, may well open the door to what some people call a revolution in measurement. This technology, they say, is the digital equivalent of the telescope or the microscope. Both of those made it possible to see and measure things as never before — with the telescope, it was the heavens and new galaxies; with the microscope, it was the mysteries of life down to the cellular level.

Data-driven insights, experts say, will fuel a shift in the center of gravity in decision-making. Decisions of all kinds, they say, will increasingly be made on the basis of data and analysis rather than experience and intuition — more science and less gut feel. Data, for example, is an antidote to the human tendency to rely too much on a single piece of information or what is familiar — what psychologists call “anchoring bias.”

Big Data, its proponents insist, will be the next big trend in management. Erik Brynjolfsson, director of the MIT Center for Digital Business, cites the familiar business truism, “You can’t manage what you can’t measure.” And as it opens new horizons in measurement, the modern data era, Mr. Brynjolfsson said, will transform the practice of management. Big Data, he said, will “replace ideas, paradigms, organizations and ways of thinking about the world.”

But caveats are in order. Big Data is a descendant of Frederick Winslow Taylor’s “scientific management” of a century ago. His instruments of measurement and recording were the stopwatch, clipboard and his eyes. Taylor and his acolytes used these time-and-motion studies to redesign work for maximum efficiency.

Yet eventually, the excesses of that approach became apparent and even satirical grist for the movie “Modern Times” by Charlie Chaplin. And the enthusiasm for quantitative methods has waxed and waned ever since.

Discrimination by statistical inference is a real risk in the Big Data world, as some personal data trails suggest a correlation that may be wrong. David C. Vladeck, a former senior Federal Trade Commission official and a professor of law at Georgetown University, offers this example: Imagine spending a few hours looking online for information on deep fat fryers. You could be looking for a gift for a friend or researching a report for cooking school. But to a data miner, tracking your online viewing, this hunt could be read as a telltale sign of an unhealthy habit — a data-based prediction that could make its way to a health insurer or potential employer.

And, again, the surveillance potential of Big Data technology, if it runs amok, is scary.

But all technologies involve trade-offs and risks. In ancient times, fire could cook your food and keep you warm, but, out of control, could burn down your hut. Cars pollute the air and cause traffic deaths, but they have also increased personal mobility and freedom, and stimulated the development of regional and national markets for goods.

Big Data technology is not fundamentally different. Its advance is probably inevitable, and the risks seem manageable and the potential benefits enormous. One glimpse of the potential payoff can be seen at the Mount Sinai Medical Center, in the work being pursued by the group Mr. Hammerbacher has joined.

Photo<strong>DATA MAN </strong> Jeffrey Hammerbacher studies genetic and other medical data.DATA MAN Jeffrey Hammerbacher studies genetic and other medical data.Credit Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times

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