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Big Data: Friend or Foe?

Updated: May 13

Throughout the history of mankind, information has always been one of the most valuable assets. In our post-industrial era, this trend is as strong as ever. The amount of digitalised information grows exponentially, while revolutionary technologies development in the recent decades allows us to manage data on a completely new level.

Being applicable to almost any industry, Big Data claims a significant role in our daily lives. That’s why it is worth a deeper analysis as we question the difference between Big Data and just a lot of data? Where and how can it be used? Can it really make a difference for humanity or it will remain only a tool for giant corporations?

First of all, Big Data refers to the data-sets of high structural complexity, that can help us see a wider picture and lead to insights, processed using top-performance computing algorithms, far more capable than usual data analysis.

The vast majority of people have encountered Big Data application in shopping and advertising. One of the factors that favoured Amazon’s success was its ‘suggestions system’, that now is common for numerous platforms: analysing not only purchase and browsing history, but correlating this info with user profile (age, sex and other personal features), as well as with other people’s shopping patterns, customers are being offered products and services tailored to their needs even before they realize what they want. And, except for managing already existing product supply, buyer patterns research can help with planning future strategy and developing products that best address the customers’ demand, which is a win-win scenario for all parties involved.

Similar information is being monetised by the web ads providers every time we see banners with the products that we have recently interacted with.

In the financial services industry, Big Data can be used similarly to market appropriate products to appropriate clients, but there also are several specific cases. For example, it is common practice to use Big Data in risk-management to assess the borrower’s credibility (1). Some institutions also benefit from the technology in compliance and AML. Automation in this field can significantly optimise costs and improve efficiency of these organisations. However, in some special cases, machines can make incorrect decisions. For instance, former Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke had troubles refinancing his mortgage, despite the fact that his actual credibility was not an issue, as it would only take him three speeches to cover the whole amount (2). Similar solutions are applicable for product development and risk-management for insurance companies as well.

Remarkably, Big Data is affordable not only for giant companies with vast resources. There are companies that provide third-party Big Data services, that businesses of almost any type could benefit from.

The healthcare industry, which is now at the top of the world’s agenda, can also make use of Big Data. Firstly, it can help with research and diagnostics. While at this stage the human still has a decision-making advantage over the machine, doctors and scientists can benefit from the algorithms’ ability to process and analyse vast databases (personal records, X-ray scans etc.) (3). It is both useful for preventive screening and searching for effective treatment.

With regards to COVID-19 pandemic, Big Data-based solutions have also helped to track the disease spread. Some countries developed systems that, using travel records, CCTV footage and other data, can help with tracking potential carriers and their contacts, including asymptomatic ones, and thus, be one step ahead with policy planning. However, Big Data solutions still can’t perform perfectly in times of pandemic. In many regions, existing data collection and processing capabilities are not comprehensive enough. In other cases, it is just impossible to synchronise the data from different sources or regions.

With all the benefits that Big Data can deliver, there are factors that cause concern, namely privacy and data protection. Being considered as a necessary measure for managing the pandemic, governments’ increased control over the personal data potentially can be used for different purposes. It creates a demand for legislative foundation that would regulate the information, historically unprecedented by its amount and coverage. The same works for corporations, that already know all about our online lives.

Internet revolutionised the data, making it easily available, and Big Data, a relatively new player on stage, is likely to bring another breakthrough. In the near future, it will be able transform the way we work, regardless of the industry or business size. The transition from manual to machine labour during the First Industrial Revolution led civilization to a brand-new level, and Big Data has the potential to have an impact of similar scale. With great power comes great responsibility, but if we use it wisely, humanity can unwrap countless opportunities, that will change our world for better.

January 28th 2021



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