What’s the Big Deal with Big Data?
We now have the resources to accumulate and analyze massive amounts of data. More data points allow us to produce better sampling techniques, more accurate analyses, less guesswork, larger-scale interventions, greater operational efficiencies, cost reductions and reduced risk. Big data can also lead to big risk.
Big data is a term used to describe the recent exponential growth and availability of data to private industry, governments and both small and large-scale data analysis systems. To many, big data is considered to be as important, if not more important, than the Internet has become to revolutionizing business and society. When applied to assisting patients, these outcomes can be positive. When applied to harming patients, such outcomes can quickly become quite negative.
What Does Big Data Do?
When you go to your local grocery store and buy groceries with your discount club card; followed by a quick stop to Starbucks for your latte on your way to the gas station to get your gas for the week, you are leaving a data trail that someone may not only be watching, but accumulating.
The exact time of day, location and contents of your grocery bill not only can show the total amount of your grocery purchase, but also the fact that you picked up a People’s Magazine and mouthwash along with your blueberries. This information is easily monitored by hundreds of thousands of faceless computers in the “systems” that track big data.
The picture may become simultaneously more personalized and comprehensive as your weekly habits are added to other “data points” about your less routine purchasing habits, movements across geography and thousands of other, less personal data sets such as weather, political events, TV holiday specials and which team won the local football game in your community. Merchants and other parties pay dearly for this type of information, and it is available from many sources. Corporations are compiling such information as a matter of course, as most consumers go blithely about their business, leaving data crumbs as they proceed.
On a more easily accessed level, college class projects now are using Twitter and other public big data sources to accumulate views of a wide variety of topics, including those related to behavior and mental health or substance abuse. Consider a project related to which cities are inhabited by happier people, in case you or your patient are looking to relocate to escape depression, sell happiness-related products, or conduct research on city planning and happiness. (See the Hedonometer for details.) In 2012, Forbes ran an article describing a study that was using twitter analysis to identify “psychopaths.”