Welcome to the Age of Big Data. The new megarich of Silicon Valley, first at Google and now Facebook, are masters at harnessing the data of the Web — online searches, posts and messages — with Internet advertising. At the World Economic Forum last month in Davos, Switzerland, Big Data was a marquee topic. A report by the forum, “Big Data, Big Impact,” declared data a new class of economic asset, like currency or gold.

Rick Smolan, creator of the “Day in the Life” photography series, is planning a project later this year, “The Human Face of Big Data,” documenting the collection and uses of data. Mr. Smolan is an enthusiast, saying that Big Data has the potential to be “humanity’s dashboard,” an intelligent tool that can help combat poverty, crime and pollution. Privacy advocates take a dim view, warning that Big Data is Big Brother, in corporate clothing.

What is Big Data? A meme and a marketing term, for sure, but also shorthand for advancing trends in technology that open the door to a new approach to understanding the world and making decisions. There is a lot more data, all the time, growing at 50 percent a year, or more than doubling every two years, estimates IDC, a technology research firm. It’s not just more streams of data, but entirely new ones. For example, there are now countless digital sensors worldwide in industrial equipment, automobiles, electrical meters and shipping crates. They can measure and communicate location, movement, vibration, temperature, humidity, even chemical changes in the air.

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