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Why You (Not Just Companies Serving or Selling to You) Should Care About Big Data

By now, you may have been informed or even warned that businesses are using your information, from the routes you take through stores to the events on your Facebook timeline, to market to you. But can the ever-bigger big data movement help you? The answer is a ‘big’ YES.

Here are some ways we can expect to see data transform our lives within the coming years.

1. Data are the building blocks for smart homes and other intelligent environments. A key aspiration of the “Internet of Things” – a world in which objects are controlled and connected through apps – is responsiveness to the user. But how can lightbulbs or sprinklerslearn about their users? You guessed it: by collecting data. The Nest Thermostat, for example, monitors your schedule to learn when to control the temperature and when it’s wasting energy on an empty house.

2. Data will allow us to successfully and safely automate more devices. Your nervous system collects immense amounts of data about your environment, both internal (exact muscular movements needed for walking) and external (where objects in a room are positioned in relation to one another), in virtually no time. This ability has proven difficult to replicate in robots and other automated devices for two reasons:

  1. Until now, it has been difficult to collect and store enough data to create patterns and build such artificial intelligence.
  2. The computing power required to make such quick decisions was too costly for any business.

Now that those two barriers have been reduced, several companies are exploring such intelligent devices as self-driving vehicles and aerial vehicles. Limitations on these technologies’ decision-making capabilities can have serious consequences: When a self-driving car is on the road, it must collect data instantly to determine when to turn or hit the brakes. When an industrial robot is working alongside people in a factory, it must collect feedback from its environment to detect if a person is in its way. Several accidents, even deaths, have been incurred from the rote motions of robots that can’t collect and act on data in real time.

3. Data will improve healthcare. Nobody (aside from an identical twin) has your genes, and nobody in the world has experienced the same environmental factors that have contributed to your development. The more information healthcare providers have about you and similar patients, the more they know about what conditions you might be at risk for and what treatments are appropriate. For example, a recent study by health insurance provider Aetna determined major factors contributing to metabolic syndrome and assessed patients’ future risk based on previous customers’ medical histories. The field of genomic medicine is going to see particularlylarge strides when more patient data becomes available and actionable. Doctors and genetic counselors can make far more accurate diagnoses and prescribe more effective treatments once they have large  databases of patients with comparable conditions and information about their genetic codes and treatment histories.

4. Data can spare you annoying, irrelevant ads. Equally important to the ads your data attracts are the ones it filters out. The ability to track your purchasing habits and preferences means fewer useless promotions flooding your inbox and browser. (Discounts for the same style of shoe I just bought? Are they trying to create an addiction?) This selectivity also means more promotions, products and services you actually care about. (GrubHub coupon for my favorite restaurant? My night is made.)

5. The data you provide while shopping online can help you find what you want faster – and sometimes without even looking. Sometimes, you want to get in and out of a store as quickly as possible with what you need. Other times, you might hope to find something you didn’t know you wanted. Data applied effectively to online shopping can optimize both scenarios.

6. Ultimately, data can allow others to view us as individuals, not members of categories. Nobody likes having assumptions made about them – but in many areas, assumptions are the best we have right now. Everywhere from doctors’ offices to retail  stores, we are assumed to represent the average of our age, gender, and other demographics. But since “average” is an abstraction that doesn’t describe most individuals, data about your individual history is a far more exact predictor of your preferences than what arbitrary categories you belong to.

Those seeking efficiency should not have to rack their brains to find the right search terms and filter out the noise. Intelligent enough software should know that a search for “yellow wallpaper” means something different if you’ve been looking for books than if you’ve been looking for home decor. At the same time, those who prefer a leisurely window-shopping experience should be able to view what interests them rather than a random assortment of items. So, if you’ve just added yellow wallpaper to your cart, you might be shown yellow rugs or bedspreads to decorate your room thematically.

From the Internet of Things to the Genomic Revolution, our ability to achieve futuristic visions of society boils down to one major factor we often miss: our ability to collect, consolidate, analyze and act upon data to improve our health, lifestyle and surroundings. Only then will the technological advancements we see over the next few decades be tailored toward individual consumers rather than generalized audiences. We’re excited about our products’ potential to give people value back from the data they’re sharing.


  This post is republished from Data Wins: The WibiData Blog.

  Images under a CC license via (from top) USDA on Flickr, Oushak Rugs By Nazmiyal on Wikimedia Commons.

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Tags: big, data, healthcare, internet, of, retail, robotics, things

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