In Naples World Experts Explore the Future and "Big Data" is a Big Deal

In 2002, the world began storing more information in digital than in analog format and this event meant we were dramatically changing the way we gather information.  Facts on our health, consumer habits, telecommunications, entertainment and finance, are just a small portion of what we, knowingly or unknowingly, share with big companies and governments. Oxford

Viktor Mayer-Schönberger, Professor of Internet governance and Regulation at the University of Oxford, UK, described how Big Data is shaping our future.

His speech was held on October 22nd at the historic San Carlo Theatre in Naples, Italy, during the Future Forum, a one-week conference hosting world experts who presented their forecasts on economy, industry, health and food.

BIG DATA AND THE POP TARTS PARADOX 

Pierpaolo Basso - Guest Blogger

The large USA retail chain Walmart did an internal survey to discover which items are sought the most by consumers when they feel scared by upcoming natural disasters such as heavy storms or hurricanes.  “Flashlights you might guess, - Schönberger  said -  Sure, that makes sense, but the most popular items are Pop Tarts, the pre-baked toaster pastries. Did Walmart managers ask themselves why? Not at all, because in big data collection the ‘what’ is more important than the 'why'. So, now, when those events approach, the company knows to start boosting its Pop Tarts' inventory.”

GENOME SEQUENCING AND HEALTH IMPLICATIONS

In 2003 The Human Genome Project gave us the ability, "to read nature's complete genetic blueprint for building a human being" at a cost of about 1 Billion Dollar.  After 10 years we can have our DNA mapped for a few thousand dollars.  This is starting to give us a chance to predict our health strengths and weaknesses based on our personal genetic structure.

Another illuminating example of how Big Data science is becoming very relevant in healthcare is shown by Carolyn McGregor, Canada Research Chair in Health Informatics at the University of Ontario, Institute of Technology.  Collecting high-frequency physiological data, including heart rate and respiration rate, she creates algorithms that can predict when a baby is at risk of infection and other health complications.  The "oddity" is that Professor McGregor is NOT a Medical Doctor, she is a computer scientist, yet she's saving hundreds of lives.

Another "big health challenge for big data" came about with the H1N1 flu epidemic of 2009.  The world feared the spread of that virus, in a similar way we now fear the spread of Ebola; this global anxiety pushed scientists all over the world to gather as much data as possible on this virus to understand in real-time what continents and countries it reached and how it was spreading.  It turns out that the people at GOOGLE, looking at popular search terms, crunched an enormous amount of data, and could find out what countries, states, and even cities were about to have an outbreak.

NETWORKS AND CORRELATION

A Dutch phone company discovered that its aerial units didn’t work properly during weather changes so, suddenly, it found itself with thousands of units which could be used as weather alert predictors.  This example shows the importance of data correlation: identifying the right links among data-sets.

This is why we are finally starting to have much more accurate online translators: the more data is collected the more the translator can draw on many pairs of parallel texts from different languages to discern the patterns of translation between those languages.

However, correlating huge amounts of data can lead to the risk of generating too many correlations which might appear to be statistically significant even though there is no meaningful connection.

THE DICTATORSHIP OF DATA

The other side of the coin is the risk of not feeling free of acting naturally in a world where decisions are increasingly dominated by data analytics.

Schönberger talked about Petabytes as the latest, much larger data storage capacity measure.  We are talking about 1,000 Terabytes or 1 million Gigabytes.  Who controls them? What happens if they are not used correctly by private companies or even governments? These are just a few of the many questions we will need to answer.  Because the Big Data future is hic et nunc, as ancient Romans used to say: Here and Now.