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Four big data trends that are revolutionizing life as you read this

  • Now professional education will be on your palms
  • Your smartphone will help you find the perfect shoes: Refined information in your hands
  • Feeling lonely? Talk to your PC; It knows how you feel!
  • Big data in healthcare – Imagine your surgery being tracked so that there is no scope for error!
  • Where is big data going from here?

Everybody with some connection to information technology and the internet is talking about big data. The technology, which has been on the course of rapid development in the past decade, is taking exponential proportions today and will continue to do so in the time to come. Let me come out straight and tell you that our base assumptions about big data just being a perfect database management system are far from what the real deal is. Together with the Internet of Things (which is essentially managed with the help of big data) and advanced analytics technologies, big data is all set to revolutionize areas such as education, retail, healthcare, and almost each aspect of global life-culture and economy in the time to come. Yes! We may be looking at completely free education right from your bedroom, and apps that respond according to your mood. As always, there is a positive and negative side to this. Information renting and sell-out are some of the threats which big data poses apart from the popular invasion of individual privacy.

Big data allows for dynamic management and analysis of the most complex and humongous amounts of data which flows globally between all the devices connected to one another in one form or the other. Earlier DBMS systems were limited to query analysis and solutions; however, big data has completely reimagined data management and mining, which has resulted in an unrelenting scope of opportunities.

1. Now professional education will be on your palms

The concept of University of Everywhere is making the rounds across popular educational organizations and authorities across the globe, and may well come to fruition in the coming years. This has only been possible courtesy of big data and its related applications. Educational organizations such as EdX, Coursera, Udacity, Saylor, and OLI are working on refining and churning out courses which can be availed by anyone in the world with an internet connection. Here comes the best part: there is a high probability that this kind of education will be free!

Wait! Do not go totally “Matrix” over yourselves. There will be no coaxial cables or wireless transmissions which will transfer knowledge directly into your head! No, Sir. The experience will have familiar traits such as reading books, writing papers, solving problems, completing and submitting projects, etc. The length of these courses will depend on the kind of stream you choose. They may be a package of a few courses or really long and complex ones. Constraints such as semester hours and deadlines will be removed to give modern education a completely new and dynamic outlook. These courses will be built around digital learning environments. Using big data and the internet, millions of educators worldwide will collaborate and assemble these courses with the help of open-source components. As more and more people will use them, even more data and money will be created, which can be reinvested in the same sector to make education available to students in the remotest corners of the globe and at the cheapest possible prices. The scope for improvement is major for existing educational institutions as well. Using sophisticated AI, information about students can be analyzed in detail. This would help in understanding the strengths and weaknesses of each individual, so that education can be customized and maximum potential is realized. Student learning experiences can be consistently improved by using techniques such as the Machine Learning Technique by Google’s Peter Norvig, which analyzes oceans of information from millions of students and evaluates the perfect scenarios for them.

In the time to come, we may see open badges replacing traditional letter grades and diplomas. The learning process will be digitally recorded and actual performance will be measured based on daily academic work. I believe this would be a major step toward levelling the field and nullifying the stressful effects of tough competition. Once you have a truly fair chance at something, the motivation is genuine. That is why, this application of big data appeals to me. Till date, a larger percentage of quality education has been confined to select expensive colleges and universities; however, tomorrow, it will be available to multitudes. This means that students will have peers from every corner of the earth. Learning will be more dynamic when people of different races and creeds will share knowledge! Thus, just like how advanced IT has made creating start-ups cheaper, big data is very well on the verge of providing cheaper (maybe, completely free) and high quality education to everyone.

Man holding tablet showing woman with laptop
Big Data is very well on the verge of providing cheaper (maybe, completely free) and high quality education to everyone

2. Your smartphone will help you find the perfect shoes: Refined information in your hands

Another huge implication of big data and related analytics has been in the direct consumer sector, where companies such as Amazon and other multinationals are using information generated on popular channels such as Facebook and Twitter to create customized strategies based on individual preferences and interests. While this creates a scare about these companies creating tools and apps to coerce people into buying products, there is also some good in it to be looked at. Such kind of data mining has also led to the creation of tools and applications which have wide utility in virtual healthcare and a host of other things.

Ms. Natasha Dow Schüll is a cultural anthropologist and studies the relationship between people and technology. Her book, titled “Keeping Track: Personal Informatics, Self-regulation and the Data-driven Life” discusses the various forms and implications of data-driven technologies over our lives. All this revolves around a concept called quantified self, which originated in 2009. Tech enthusiasts analyzed details from their daily lives with the aim of gaining helpful insights into their own behavior patterns. The idea has since evolved into exponential proportions. It was taken up by quantrepreneurs (consumer electronics developers), who expanded it to fitness activities and health trackers. The same happened with retail and the concept of dynamic buying where prices fluctuate based on your interest. Apps such as Waterlogged persuade people to increase their water consumption. HAPIfork is another such directional app in the form of a utensil which turns on a light indicator when you eat too quickly. I would like that. Wouldn’t you?

Such applications are no doubt useful, but what is the extent of dumbing-down that we can expect? Is this virtual nanny care really worth it? Does it have any ulterior or dangerous applications which we have not seen yet? For instance, Thync is a neurological signaling app in the form of headgear which delivers electrical pulses to energize or relax people. What if someone expands this tech to get the signals back and track down the most sensitive information! Who can guarantee that this will not happen? Top industrialists say that we have nothing to worry as the ultimate choice of providing vital information rests with the users.

However, many people such as Ms. Schüll also believe that companies might use this information to coerce people into over-assessing this information and buy stuff they do not need! So the take away from this is that self-tracking and self-restriction are a must for us as consumers. We should decide what we wish to disclose in order to learn something. This means prioritizing our needs based on informed decisions which are governed by rationality rather than coercion. People should use products and apps which provide minimal but good guidance, such as the Muse, which is a brain-wave monitoring headband. It helps people understand their state of mind by playing different sounds, depending on whether they are distracted or calm.

3. Feeling lonely? Talk to your PC; It knows how you feel!

This is by far the biggest application big data can have. The ability to analyze terabytes of data in the matter of seconds is what makes brain mapping and responding to basic human emotions possible in the time to come! Artificial intelligence startup Affectiva claims that you will be able to watch those films which are best suited to give you maximum entertainment! Their software Affdex, which they are working on, will read your emotional reactions in real time. The plot, for example, will speed up when you’re bored and the drama will hold when you’re into the movie.

El Kaliouby, a PhD in computer science from Cambridge University, built Affectiva’s core technology with an aim to help autistic kids. The research later presented a business scope, and thus shaped up Affdex. The software records the most minor changes in human facial expressions and transfers the data points for the purpose of analysis. Since the start of the project, the software has recorded 11 billion data points taken from 2.8 million faces in 75 countries. That is indeed a lot of information! In the words of Kaliouby, this enables Affdex to predict precise human emotions and even know how one is feeling. That’s very exciting and scary at the same time! Some success has already been achieved! A video display built for Hershey is being used in retail stores. If you smile at the screen, you get a free chocolate sample. Tech startup OoVoo, which works somewhat like Skype, has integrated the software to its video chat. The emphasis, it says, is on focus groups, online education, and political affinity by using the software to get the best out of interactions.

Charlene Li, CEO of the research organization Altimeter Group fears that the biggest threat from this technology is the breach of trust! If such kind of data falls in the wrong hands, it could prove lethal. What happens if personal information, such as whether one is sad or tired, is sold out to pharmaceutical firms and the data is then exploited? I believe this is justified. The only possible solution to this issue is the proper regulation of this technology by unbiased authorities. Furthermore, we the consumers should also keep a track on what information we are providing to the developers and at what cost. The technology where your facial expressions are read may sound very helpful on a lot of fronts but we, the humans, will have to take care on how to act on them!

4. Big data in healthcare – Imagine your surgery being tracked so that there is no scope for error!

If you seek to measure the real impact of technology on the world, you should analyze how it is impacting the health industry. In the recent years, the internet of things has opened new revolutionary platforms. Virtual healthcare has allowed doctors and specialists to reach the remotest of areas. However, before we revel in some really revolutionary achievements, let’s explore a major issue which still has no comprehensive solution. The basic question which needs to be answered to improve healthcare and reduce cost is what works and what doesn’t. This can be done through digital registries where doctors and medical authorities come together to share their results and findings. Surprisingly, there are no big data strides to make sure of that. Dr. Martin Makary, a surgeon at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, published an online study in the past week, which enlisted the major issues that can be resolved through big data and related analytics. He found that 99% Americans go into surgery without being much certain about the outcome. There is no tracking whatsoever. He found it amazing that one-fifth of the American economy was functioning without performance tracking.

This is primarily based on the lack of incentives these medical care units face when it comes to tracking surgeries and medical procedures. On the contrary, Cystic Fibrosis Registry has been able to track medical events for the past twenty years and has helped prolong the survival of kids with cystic fibrosis. However, this is just one drop in the huge ocean. Dr. Douglas Rex of Indiana University, who is equally frustrated with the lack of incentives that doctors face, video-graphed a bunch of doctors performing colonoscopies and told them he would watch it and track down their performance. The quality scores improved by almost 40% from the very next procedure! This is the kind of incentive we need to generate, and big data can help doctors such as Makary and Douglas to enforce better tracking standards, and in turn improve overall healthcare.

With such impending issues at hand, what is the scope for improvement in global healthcare that big data can provide?

Today, you can find numerous apps that provide you with valuable health information, such as the calories you have burnt or your average heart rates, with the help of data analytics which big data supports. This enables us to abide to the age-old saying “prevention is better than cure.” Apps such as Fitbit and Jawbone allow us to track our health and send the vital data to be compared against others. In the near future, we could be using this data, sharing it on cloud devices with our doctors, and cure ailments even before the first symptoms arise! An example of such alliance is the Pittsburgh Health Data Alliance, which aims to take data from various sources such as wearable sensors, genetic data, and medical and insurance records to tap into individual anatomy and come up with specialized procedures, thus ensuring better results. The data is not treated in isolation but compared with other volumes. This helps experts in predicting possible epidemics and trends which could lead to unseen calamities if left unchecked. In Africa, mobile phone location data has made amazing contribution to tracking population movements, which in turn have helped in predicting the spread of the Ebola virus.

Moreover, big data may eventually help us in finding the cure to the biggest and deadliest scare: cancer! Flatiron Health believes that 96% of potentially available data on cancer patients are still not analyzed. I see that as a great gap, don’t you? The company has developed what they call the Oncology Cloud, which aims at collecting this data and make it available to experts for further study. Apple and IBM have also joined hands on a major collaboration that will allow iPhone and Apple Smart Watch users to sync their health data to Watson Health Cloud, which is IBM’s health analytics service. This will help generate new medical insights and tap into the consistent data trail for valuable information. So the next time you are at the doctors, it may be possible that the pills and shots you get are researched through big data!

Where is big data going from here?

In this post, we saw how much big data has already evolved and the influence it has on almost every major sphere of human existence. This is what happens with any revolutionary technology – it goes on to become an inherent part of everyday lives. For instance, the bulb made life easier and became a requirement in almost all the homes of the world just like computer systems, which became an integral part of almost every man-made process we can think of! Big data is one such revolutionary technology which is already providing solutions for global access to education, healthcare, and modern retail. Together with the Internet of Things, we could well be looking at a much interconnected future where your car may order your main door to open once you reach home or street lights which will switch on only when you are in the vicinity.

As more and more technologies connect to the internet of things and start generating valuable data, more and more processes will get better, precise, and efficient. What we need to take care of is the proper scrutiny of such technologies before official launch and removal of any hidden agendas such as invasion of privacy and information piracy. As users, we should use our power of choice and opt for only those technologies which support self-tracking but do not make us dumb thoughtless zombies who depend on their phones to even decide what to eat! In the end, I would say that big data is very well poised to take the world toward progressive realms but only if we keep a track and maintain its integrity.

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