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Big data is useful, scary, and more subjective than you know

Big data helps us understand our customers, but it also helps budding companies sell information about you (or TO you), and is more subjective than you may know – it takes a human touch to determine what info is important.

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Big data is here and unavoidable

For years, we’ve written about big data and showcased the progression of business intelligence available now to brands of every size, in fact, most businesses have a feel for this type of data – open a spreadsheet of your sales data and you already know it’s just a bunch of numbers unless they are analyzed and filtered. Today, I want to review what big data is, how it is currently being used, what this means for the future, and most importantly, how it can be cherry picked and why it can upset entire industries.

[ba-pullquote align=”right”]”Big data” is typically consisting of at least dozens of terabytes in a single data set.[/ba-pullquote]“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 really big. It is described by Gartner analyst, Doug Laney as being three-dimensional, i.e. increasing volume (amount of data), velocity (speed of data in/out), and variety (range of data types, sources).

Let’s talk about how BIG this really is

Let me illustrate. The University of Nebraska physics department 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 turn. As of 2012, the average smartphone user has 736 pieces of personal data collected every day, stored for one to five years by service providers.

[ba-pullquote align=”right”]By 2020, there will be 5,200 gigabytes of data for every human on Earth.[/ba-pullquote]IBM’s chief executive, Virginia Rometty said, “By one estimate there will be 5,200 gigabytes of data for every human on the planet by 2020. And powerful new computing systems can store and make sense of it nearly instantaneously.” It has also been predicted that in the coming years, over 200,000 big data specialists will be required to make sense of the barrage of data being collected.

Big data is already being used today in a big way

Big data is a big deal and it’s not just because there’s a lot of it. In fact, today alone, SumAll raised $4 million and DataSift raised a whopping $42 million to help businesses make sense of their data as it relates to social media.

[ba-pullquote align=”right”]Retailers are analyzing your facial expressions on camera to tell if you’re a happy shopper, and tracking your gender, age, and size as you walk in the door.[/ba-pullquote]Big data is already used in amazing ways by the retail industry by analyzing shopper height and size as they walk in the door to determine age, gender, and more, and even have cameras analyzing facial expressions while you’re shopping to gauge your experience. If that doesn’t impress you, there’s already a seasoned company that is tracking “visual mentions” online so if you share a picture of your Starbucks cup on Instagram, even if you don’t say Starbucks or use GPS, Starbucks can see that their logo, even if curved, was used online on a social network.

Predicting the future with big data

But it’s not just that data is having a tremendous impact on life today, it is still a young sector with many startups yet to pop up to solve the data conundrums. SiftScience fights fraud using machine-learning that learns from data to recognize patterns of fraudulent behavior based on past examples, and Hadoop helps companies analyze massive amounts of generating about user behavior and their own operations while Recorded Future uses algorithms that unlock predictive signals based on web chatter to determine a brand anticipate risks and capitalize opportunities.

[ba-pullquote align=”right”]Intel is working on technology using big data to allow you to see three cars ahead, behind, and beside you.[/ba-pullquote]There are already projects in the works that allows forecasters to predict weather up to 42 days in advance, potentially saving lives and billions of dollars a year.Intel is working on a big data project that allows cars to communicate so drivers will be able to see three cars in front of, behind, and to the left and right – simultaneously. Ford is developing vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure systems to warn drivers of potentially hazardous traffic events, like cars going through red lights.

But big data has some really big problems

First, and least upsetting, is that there are big problems with demographics, leaving brands with a lot of data that doesn’t yet mean much. Why? Incomplete self reporting is a huge issue because brands are still focused on using social networking profile data to gather intelligence on their site users, fans, and the like, but when they rely on this data, people may not be completely truthful (they may say they are 32, but they’re 12, and so forth). Additionally, privacy does protect users to a certain extent, blocking intelligence gathering by brands. Lastly, data is still largely inconsistent and unconnected – you may have a Twitter account and Facebook account, but a third party doesn’t know that unless (a) you use the same username consistently or (b) you grant access to both accounts through that third party.

While other problems exist (like how will we ever store all of this data, disseminate it, and make sense of it, and does it all really matter?), the biggest one we see is the potential for cherry picking, because when you look at a data set, it still takes a human to actually determine what is important to garner from that data set.

[ba-pullquote align=”right”]Big data may mean more information, but it also means more false information.[/ba-pullquote]Industry expert Nassim Taleb opined in February, “With big data, researchers have brought cherry-picking to an industrial level. Modernity provides too many variables, but too little data per variable. So the spurious relationships grow much, much faster than real information. In other words: Big data may mean more information, but it also means more false information.”

Taleb addresses something that could lead one to think that big data is faulty and bad, but perhaps Taleb is really pointing out the human nature that is still required in some instances of analyzing big data – and most people would not typically question a researcher or their methods, leaving analysis in its youngest phase subjective.

Chris Treadaway, CEO and Founder of Polygraph Media which is famous for data-driven analytics said, “To analyze big data, you have to know when you have enough data, know that you’re looking at the right data, and know how and when to draw conclusions from the data using methods developed from statistics theory and data science. That’s the great irony of “big data” – it’s as much of an art as a science, which is why the best efforts are multidisciplinary.”

“Big data can find tremendous hidden relationships,” Treadaway continued, “but you have to make sure your bias isn’t to find conclusions that don’t exist. Bias can cause the situation Taleb describes, and will cause disinformation as he says. If you’re cautious, discerning, and careful, you can make the most of big data. But there are pitfalls for the careless.”

And the coup de gras

[ba-pullquote align=”right”]Your performance data, finances, company info and more are already being repackaged for public consumption and monetization.[/ba-pullquote]The coup de gras is that professionals are being threatened by new ways big data is being used, but they are not recognizing it as a big data issue.

Several industries are seeing data about them individually, their performance, their company, their finances, all analyzed and repackaged for public consumption or monetization.

Imagine a site launches tomorrow based on publicly available data and you’re a social media consultant. Let’s say that this new site looks at who has recommended you on LinkedIn, Yelp, Angie’s List and so on, and has determined that the people recommending you are clients of yours, based on the assumption that it is the only reason they’d recommend you or review you. The new site also analyzes words and pictures used in your online bios to determine characteristics about you.

Then, they take those reviews and characteristics and quantify you into a score, giving you more points if someone from Coca Cola reviewed you than if the local dentist reviewed you, implying that you’re a higher quality consultant if you’ve worked with a major brand like Coca Cola than if you worked with a local dentist (God forbid you specialize in social media for independent medical professionals).

Then, Google gets interested in this new site and they invest, and later, they want to use that data to populate your Google+ profile, so now you, the social media consultant, has a score next to their face to determine how good you are at your job.

What’s wrong with that?

[ba-pullquote align=”right”]You must understand that data requires a human to determine what is relevant, which doesn’t always allow for the full context of the data points.[/ba-pullquote]Data is subjective, even when raw – it takes humans to determine what data points in the sea of data are relevant, and it doesn’t always take into account the context surrounding that data. You, the social media consultant, could have taken a two year sabbatical to execute social media strategies pro bono for three tiny charities, four local restaurants, two African orphanages, and a spa, earning a reputation for your high quality of work and compassion that can’t possibly quantified by a computer.

This scenario is fake. For now. But with every human generating billions of data points every year, evaluations are just the first of many steps in what is to come with big data – the data is now generated, and it is a race to see what can be displayed about you and your business so that companies can sell to you or repackage your data and sell it to someone else. Even your brand will be using big data to gain insights into your customers so you can better serve them.

[ba-pullquote align=”right”]The race is on to see what can be displayed online about you and your business, which is being repackaged and resold.[/ba-pullquote]There are pros and cons to big data, but the reality is that it is unavoidable, even if you ignore it or misunderstand it. Consumers need to begin to recognize when they see big data, and understand that it may not be the true context of that data, as it is ripe with humans’ decisions regarding what is important about a data set. This is just the beginning.

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4 Comments

4 Comments

  1. Patrick Gallagher

    December 6, 2013 at 12:43 pm

    100% spot on conclusion: “…as it is ripe with humans’ decisions regarding what is important about a data set.”

    I like how Rory Sutherland (sometimes with Taleb or speaking about his work) kicks these ideas around. As soon as you pick certain data points and make them *the* metrics to follow the data becomes skewed and meaningless. You changed it just by looking at it so hard.

    Good stuff.

  2. Hank Miller

    December 9, 2013 at 7:35 am

    We are drowning in data and it can lead to paralysis by analysis.

    Watching videos and researching how to make shrimp scampi, set a broken wrist or install a hard drive does not mean that you can do it. Somewhere along the line a human with experience in the appropriate field has to provide guidance and identify the key points.

    Piles of data are just that – without someone with the abilty to effectively apply the appropriate parts to the specific question at hand there is nothing. Nothing but confusion

  3. Pingback: Top venture capitalist explains how tech startups can stand out when seeking funding - The American Genius

  4. Pingback: Big data is watching you - some will panic, others will rejoice - The American Genius

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Tech News

Further – the hybrid B2B and B2C startup providing all-in-one learning

(TECHNOLOGY) The Further app “filters” the web to find new skills for a daily dose of badge-earning learning. Consider it your personal learning library!

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There are a ton of resources dedicated to online learning, but the Further app “filters” the web to find new skills for a daily dose of badge-earning learning. Consider it your personal learning library in the palm of your hand. The Further app works to create a continuous learning experience for all, including students, employees, and trainees in a variety of industries.

“We grant intelligent access to high-quality educational content for everyone.”

Educational environments, such as schools and universities, can benefit from weaving in informal learning, increasing engagement. Consultants can use Further to increase their personal knowledge, but also provide professional knowledge to their clients. Safety and health training manuals can be completed in the app for manufacturing, food and beverage, healthcare, retail, and more. Lastly, software and tech employees can keep ahead of the trends by using the Further app.

How it works: Users can choose and collect content from multiple online sources to support their personal or professional skills. The app allows users to automate learning between family, friends, coworkers, and more through groups. Lastly, users are provided with reports to track their learning progress and are given rewards for completing items. Further uses AI to provide personalization through its own learning algorithm – the more it knows the user – the higher quality of educational suggestions it gives related to their goals.

In addition to the above, the Further app implements specific features to create a seamless learning experience. The app comes with a curated dashboard with feed customization, optimized for the users’ specific needs. The content center is bursting with resources that allows you to be in command of your education. In-app and push notifications can be enabled for reminders to complete tasks or grant access to updated trends in the news. And as with any great digital product startup, the Further app allows users to give feedback based on their experiences – you can submit ideas or future requests at their public Trello board (pretty cool if you ask me).

Request early access, download the mobile app, or try out the web extension for Chrome on desktop.

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Tech News

How psychologists are using VR to profile your personality

(TECH NEWS) VR isn’t just for gamers. Psychologists are using it to research how people emotionally respond to threats. But does it come at the cost of privacy?

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Man using VR in personality test.

When you put on a VR headset for the first time, most people have that ‘whoa’ moment. You’ve entered an enchanting otherworldly place that seems real, but you know it isn’t. You slowly tilt your head up to see a nicely lit blue sky. You turn your head around to see mountains and trees that weren’t there before. And, you finally look down to stare at your hands. Replaced by bright-colored gloves, you flex your hands to form a fist, then jazz hands, and back.

Playing VR games is exciting and interesting for a lot of gamers, and you would (or maybe wouldn’t) be surprised to know that psychologists think so, too. According to The Conversation, psychologists have started researching how people emotionally respond to potential threats using VR.

Do you think this is weird or cool? I’ll let the following help you decide.

So, why did psychologists think using VR would help them in their research?

In earlier studies, psychologists tested “human approach-avoidance behavior”. By mixing real and virtual world elements, they “observed participants’ anxiety on a behavioral, physiological, and subjective level.” Through their research, they found that anxiety could be measured, and “VR provokes strong feelings of fear and anxiety”.

In this case, how did they test emotional responses to potential threats?

For the study, 34 participants were recruited to assess how people have a “tendency to respond strongly to negative stimuli.” Using a room-scaled virtual environment, participants were asked to walk across a grid of translucent ice blocks suspended 200 meters above the ground. Participants wore head-mounted VR displays and used handheld controllers.

Also, sensors placed on the participants’ feet would allow them to interact with the ice blocks in 2 ways. By using one foot, they could test the block and decide if they wanted to step on it. This tested risk assessment. By using both feet, the participants would commit to standing on that block. This tested the risk decision.

The study used 3 types of ice blocks. Solid blocks could support the participant’s weight and would not change in appearance. Crack blocks could also support the participant’s weight, but interacting with it would change its color. Lastly, Fall blocks would behave like Crack blocks, but would shatter completely when stepped on with 2 feet. And, it would lead to a “virtual fall”.

So what did they find?

After looking at the data, researchers found out that by increasing how likely an ice block would disintegrate, the “threat” for the participant also increased. And, of course, participants’ behavior was more calculated as more cracks appeared along the way. As a result, participants opted to test more blocks before stepping on the next block completely.

But, what else did they find?

They found that data about a person’s personality trait could also be determined. Before the study, each participant completed a personality questionnaire. Based on the questionnaire and the participants’ behavior displayed in the study researchers were able to profile personality.

During the study, their main focus was neuroticism. And, neuroticism is one of the five major personality traits used to profile people. In other words, someone’s personality could now also be profiled in a virtual world.

So, it all comes down to data and privacy. And yes, this isn’t anything new. Data collection through VR has been a concern for a long while. Starting this month, Facebook is requiring all new Oculus VR owners to link their Facebook account to the hardware. Existing users will be grandfathered in until 2023.

All in all, VR in the medical field isn’t new, and it has come a long way. The question is whether the risk of our personality privacy is worth the cost.

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Tech News

Amazon backtracks on hybrid return-to-work plan, allows work from home

(TECHNOLOGY) Amazon retracts its original statement proposing a hybrid work schedule and is now open to allowing employees to work from home indefinitely.

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Samsung photo with amazon app loading page.

Let’s face it, companies can’t make up their mind regarding remote work. One week it’s this, the next week it’s that. Somehow, even though they have been running smoothly while working from home in the midst of the pandemic, employees are now suddenly considered to be “twiddling their thumbs.”

 

Following in the footsteps of other FAANG companies, in March 2021, Amazon said that their “plan is to return to an office-centric culture as our baseline. We believe it enables us to invest, collaborate, and learn together most effectively.”

What a stark contrast from the newest proposition: “At a company of our size, there is no one-size-fits-all approach for how every team works best” said Jassy, the now CEO of Amazon.  

Multi-member Zoom call on a Apple Mac laptop with a blue mug of black coffee next to it.

Contradictory, but admirable! Before this most recent announcement, Amazon was going to require all corporate works to adhere to a hybrid schedule of 3 days in office, unless otherwise specified. The hybrid work plan was set to begin in September 2021.

Now, the decision falls into the individual team’s hands and employees will be evaluated based on performance, despite where they choose to work. However, the underlying preference is to be located at least within reasonable distance to their core team’s office in order to come in on short notice.

“The company expects most teams will need a few weeks to develop and communicate their respective plans.”

Once plans are more finalized, Amazon will share specific details prior to January 3rd, 2022 – the date they initially planned for everyone to return to the office. Even though they may be a little indecisive, compared to Facebook, Apple, and Google, they’re actually being more flexible.

Finger snaps for the king of two-day shipping.

Now you have an excuse to pop open Amazon.com on a new private tab, while working from home, and buy a little something to celebrate. Seems counterintuitive to what we’re trying to prove here, but it’s necessary. Treat yo’self!

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