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Big data – buzz word or businesses’ wildest dream?

What exactly is big data? What is a petabyte? Why does it matter to a small business or independent contractor, and is it just a buzz word or is it a marketer’s dream?

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What is big data?

“Big Data” is defined as large data sets which cannot be managed with simple, common software that captures and processes the data, and is typically consisting of at least dozens of terabytes in a single data set. The challenges of big data are, well, big. It is described by Gartner analyst, Doug Laney1 as being three-dimensional, i.e. increasing volume (amount of data), velocity (speed of data in/out), and variety (range of data types, sources).

The term is being leveraged in conferences across the globe, but most are talking about the challenges of big data as it pertains to social networking sites like Facebook or location based services like Foursquare, and the idea of the volume of data being collected on every single person and how that data is becoming so large that it is a logistical challenge to manage and harvest with any meaning.

In fact, big data was a popular theme at the recent South by Southwest Conference in Austin, with technologists and marketers bringing their unique backgrounds to the conversation, each addressing the collection of and processing of the unprecedented data being collected, for the first time outside of the government, and the concerns that go along with consumers blindly offering up the data.

How BIG is big data?

Strictly speaking to social data, consider for a moment that in a 60 second period, 23,148 apps are downloaded from the App Store, and 208,333 minutes of Angry Birds is played via smartphone3. Additionally, over 28,000 text messages are sent every second, and the average mobile phone user has 736 pieces of personal data collected every day and service providers store this information for one to five years3.

The University of Nebraska physics department4 has 1.6 petabytes of data – that’s 1.6 million gigabytes in one department at one school. Boeing jet engines can produce 10 terabytes of operational information for every 30 minutes they turn4.

Twitter produces 20 gigabytes of data every day

Twitter serves more than 200 million users who produce over 800 tweets per second, each of which is roughly 200 bytes in size4, so on an average day, this traffic equals over 12 gigabytes, and throughout the Twitter ecosystem, the company produces a total of eight terabytes of data per day, compared to the New York Stock Exchange’s single terabyte of data daily.

Like a Boeing jet records every move, every time you interact with Facebook, it records data. It stores information on who clicks what and not just the name of the person, but that person’s profile information like hobbies, high school, family members, ethnicity, religion, employer, etc. Then, that data connects that one click with all other clicks you make within Facebook or any website with the Facebook plugin. That is a lot of information to store for a few simple clicks, especially given how much more demographic information is recorded and tracked than Twitter which creates 20 times the amount of data in a single day than the NYSE.

What to do with the data?

The big challenge behind the scenes is how to process and manage this volume of information in an era where consumers voluntarily offer thousands of data points through social networks, smartphones and the like. Social data is where the buzz is at conferences, but it is being referred to solely as big data, which clearly is much more complex than just what someone clicked on Facebook.

IT expert, Andrew McCafee recently shared the story5 of an Allstate-sponsored contest wherein a small team of data scientists quickly achieved a 340 percent improvement in Allstate insurance’s ability to predict bodily insurance claims based on car characteristics – without any expertise in insurance or automobiles, and without consulting Allstate’s well paid mathematicians who build and maintain these prediction models.

McAfee asks, “So how can it be that a small team of people who don’t even work for the company was able, in three months, to achieve a 340% improvement over Allstate’s ability to predict bodily injury insurance claims based on car characteristics? And how was the team able to do this while working only with disguised data — without, in other words, knowing the true makes and models of the cars? Welcome to the weird new world big data.”

What this means for business

All of the social data collected in recent years is finally becoming useful for more than buying a Facebook ad. True demographics are now evident, but moreover, real consumer behavior is being studied based on tremendously large amounts of data. If just one simple text message records a dozen pieces of data, imagine the depth of information a Facebook user transmits in a single day, with all of their personal data attached to each move.

Social data (or big data) is a nightmare to manage due to the sheer volume and velocity of transmission, but for businesses, it means a legitimate understanding of consumer behavior, not just what someone shared during a focus study or web poll, but really being able to track and understand how each consumer ticks. What’s next is being able to translate that behavior into an isolated profile of a specific type of buyer – this is the kind of data that marketers’ have been dreaming about for decades.

13D Data Management PDF
2Mobclix study
3How phone carriers track private data
4Information Management study
5Allstate prediction model

Lani is the Chief Operating Officer at The American Genius - she has co-authored a book, co-founded BASHH and Austin Digital Jobs, and is a seasoned business writer and editorialist with a penchant for the irreverent.

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33 Comments

33 Comments

  1. Matthew Hardy

    March 19, 2012 at 6:53 pm

    > consumers blindly offering up the data

    > … to translate that behavior into an isolated profile… marketers’ have been dreaming about for decades.

    Remember Soylent Green? Big data is us. 😉

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Tech News

Study finds 1,000 phrases that accidentally activate smart speakers

(TECH GADGETS) Don’t worry about accidentally activating your nosy smart speakers… unless, of course, you utter one of these 1,000 innocuous phrases.

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It’s safe to say that privacy concerns, especially in today’s digital era, are unquestionably valid. With new video recording technology making it easier to identify people at a glance (whether they like it or not) and concerns that your smart speakers are eavesdropping on you, it may feel like you’re bordering on slightly paranoid around modern technology.

After all, even though there have been cases of smart speakers picking up on intimate conversations, there’s absolutely no risk of them overhearing private things without your consent, right? Even though it’s been documented that these devices — including Cortana, Alexa, Siri, and Google Home — have listened in relationship spats, criminal activity, and even HIPAA-protected data, you’re totally in the clear.

Oh yeah. The thing is, everything that gets broadcast into your smart speaker? There’s a completely random chance that someone back at headquarters may decide to sift through it in order to improve AI learning.

And while most of the time these conversations are totally benign, it doesn’t change the fact that a complete stranger is getting an earful of your private life. In fact, these transmissions? Are actually completely admissible in court, as several murder cases have already demonstrated. Their key evidence was none other than poor Alexa herself.

But wait, wait. These smart speakers can only get your information if you activate them, and that requires you to clearly enunciate their names. Right? Um. Not exactly. Even though you may think that you need to speak crisply into the speaker to activate it, it turns out that these devices are highly sensitive to any suggestion that you might be talking to them. It’s almost like your dog when you even remotely glance at his bag of doggie treats in the corner: one crinkle and Fido comes running, begging for some kibble and ready to serve you.

It’s the same for your smart speakers. As it turns out, there are over a thousand words or phrases that can trigger your device and invite it to start recording your voice. These can range from the perfectly reasonable (Cortana hearing “Montana” and springing to attention) to the downright absurd (Alexa raising her hackles over the words “election” and “unacceptable”). Well, crap. Now what?

It’s no secret that someone is listening in on your conversations. That’s been clearly documented, researched, dissected, and even accepted at this point. However, if you thought that they’d only listen to it if you gave them implicit permission by activating your device (which, to be fair, should not even count as permission in the first place), you were wrong.

So what’s a privacy-loving person to do? Just suck it up and try to choose between the lesser of two evils? On one hand, yes, these smart speakers are super convenient and can make your life easier. On the other?

Well, if you’re a fan of your privacy, then perhaps these devices aren’t meant for you. At this point, you’ve got little recourse. These companies will continue to use your data, and there’s nothing stopping them from spying on you. That is, unless you prevent them from doing it in the first place.

If you want to keep your private conversations private, either unplug your smart speaker when you’re not using it, or don’t get one in the first place. Otherwise, you’ll continue to give your implied consent that you’re totes cool with them butting in on your personal life, and they’ll continue to be equally totes cool with using it without your permission.

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HEY needs to fix its issues to be the Gmail killer it claims to be

(TECH NEWS) You would hope that HEY, the paid email service, would launch without issues but it has a few. Let’s hope some of that money goes to fixing them.

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Hey email

Last week, we covered HEY–a new email service that seemingly has a lot to offer–and while we largely praised the service despite it being a paid client awash in a sea of free email options, not everyone is fully on board with HEY’s inimitable charm–at least, not yet.

Adam Silver, an interaction designer focused on user experience, had some criticisms of HEY–many of which he identified as “pretty surprising oversights.” Though Silver does mention that his overall opinion of the service is good, these oversights are the focus of his review.

“HEY isn’t very accessible,” says Silver in his notes. His assessment, while self-admittedly not a holistic view, includes issues related to JavaScript (specifically when it isn’t enabled, which is something more and more companies are requiring) and lack of reasonable keyboard shortcuts for anyone using a screen reader. As Silver points out, these are fairly simple–and, thus, surprising–problems that probably should have been caught from the onset.

“All of these things are really easy to fix,” amends Silver.

Another issue Silver highlights is the inbox (imbox?) sorting. As we mentioned previously, there are three locations for email: the imbox, the feed, and the paper trail, each of which serves a different purpose. The problem with this system is that organizing emails by only three overarching categories affords little flexibility; furthermore, Silver notes that the menu for accessing each folder leaves a lot to be desired from a design standpoint.

The feed is also the subject of Silver’s criticism in that it doesn’t function enough like a traditional inbox to the point that it is actually difficult to use. Especially given the feed’s purpose–to store newsletters and such in a free-scrolling manner–this is a hold-up for sure; coupled with the feed’s lack of notifications, you can see how this problem cripples the user experience without active attention to the ancillary feed inbox.

Lastly, Silver mentions that the name “imbox” is, well, stupid. “This is not a typo but it’s not good,” he says. “You need a really good reason not to keep things simple.”

This is actually a point that we initially glossed over in our overview, but it’s another instance of a company doing a little too much to stand out–and, in doing so, potentially disrupting the user experience. “Keeping it simple” by calling the delivery place for your email the “inbox” won’t sink your brand, and the name “imbox” is sure to, at best, annoy.

It’s important to reaffirm that HEY’s driving principle–accessible email that prioritizes your privacy and charges you a relatively nominal fee for doing so–is good, and that’s the tough part of any app’s development; should they choose to follow Silver’s lowkey advice and make a few tweaks, they’ll have a winning product.

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Live captioning via AI is now available for Zoom, if a little limited

(TECH NEWS) In order to be more inclusive, and improve the share of information with your team, live captioning is a great option for your next Zoom call.

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Zoom live captioning

The ubiquitous all-father Zoom continues to prompt innovation–and in a time during which most companies are still using some form of remote communication, who can blame them? It’s only fitting that someone would come along and try to flesh out Zoom’s accessibility features at some point, which is exactly what Zoom Live Captioning sets out to accomplish.

Zoom Live Captioning is a Zoom add-on service that promises, for a flat fee, to caption up to 80 hours per month of users’ meetings via an easy-to-implement plugin. The allure is clear: a virtual communication environment that is more time-efficient, more accessible, and more flexible for a variety of usage contexts.

Unfortunately, what’s less clear is how Zoom Live Captioning proposes to achieve this goal.

The live-captioning service boasts, among other things, “limited lag” and “the most accurate [speech-to-text AI] in the world”–a service that, despite its sensational description, is still only available in English. Furthermore, anyone who has experienced auto-captioning on YouTube videos–courtesy of one of the largest technology initiatives in the world–knows that, even with crystal-clear audio, caption accuracy is questionable at best.

Try applying that level of moving-target captioning to your last Zoom call, and you’ll see what the overarching problem here is.

Even if your Zoom call has virtually no latency, everyone speaks clearly and enunciates perfectly, your entire team speaks conversational English at a proficient degree across the board, and no one ever interrupts or experiences microphone feedback, it seems reasonable to expect that captions would still be finicky. Especially if you’re deaf or hard of hearing–a selling point Zoom Live Captioning drives home–this is a problematic flaw in a good idea.

Now, it’s completely fair to postulate that any subtitles are better than no subtitles at all. If that’s the decision you’d like to make for your team, Zoom Live Captioning starts at $20 per person per month; larger teams are encouraged to contact the company to discuss more reasonable rates if they want to incorporate live captioning across an enterprise.

Nothing would be better for speech-to-text innovation than being wrong about Zoom Live Captioning’s potential for inaccuracy, but for now, it’s safe to be a little skeptical.

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