Since our first ancestors put ink to parchment, data has been part of the human experience. From tracking the complex movements of the planets, to more basic things like bookkeeping, data has shaped the way we’ve evolved. Today, thanks to the internet, we collect such vast amounts of data that we have a whole new term to describe it: “big data.”
While big data is not only collected online, the digital space is undoubtedly its most abundant source. From social media likes, to emails, weather reports, and wearable devices, huge amounts of data are created and accumulated every second of every day. But how exactly is it used?
In this post, we’ll focus on some of the most interesting ways in which organizations—large and small—use big data to shape the way they work.
- What is big data and why is it useful?
- Big data in marketing and advertising
- Big data in education
- Big data in healthcare
- Big data in travel, transport, and logistics
- Key takeaways
First, let’s start with a quick summary of what big data is, and why so many organizations are scrambling to harness its potential.
1. What is big data and why is it useful?
“Big data” is used to describe repositories of information too large or complex to be analyzed using traditional techniques. For the most part, big data is unstructured, i.e. it is not organized in a meaningful way. Although the term is commonly used to describe information collected online, to understand it better, it can help to picture it literally. Imagine walking into a vast office space without desks, computers, or filing cabinets. Instead, the whole place is a towering mess of disorganized papers, documents, and files. Your job is to organize all of this information and to make sense of it. No mean feat!
While digitization has all but eradicated the need for paper documentation, it has actually increased the complexity of the task. The skill in tackling big data is in knowing how to categorize and analyze it. For this, we need the right tools and know-how. But how do we categorize such vast amounts of information in a way that makes it useful? While this might seem like a fruitless task, organizations worldwide are investing huge amounts of time and money in trying to tap big data’s potential. This is why data scientists and data analysts are currently so in demand.
But how is it done? Let’s take a look.
2. Big data in marketing and advertising
One of big data’s most obvious uses is in marketing and advertising. If you’ve ever seen an advert on Facebook or Instagram, then you’ve seen big data at work. Let’s explore some more concrete examples.
Netflix and big data
Netflix has over 150 million subscribers, and collects data on all of them. They track what people watch, when they watch it, the device being used, if a show is paused, and how quickly a user finishes watching a series. They even take screenshots of scenes that people watch twice. Why? Because by feeding all this information into their algorithms, Netflix can create custom user profiles. These allow them to tailor the experience by recommending movies and TV shows with impressive accuracy. And while you might have seen articles about how Netflix likes to splash the cash on new shows, this isn’t done blindly—all the data they collect helps them decide what to commission next.
Amazon and big data
Much like Netflix, Amazon collects vast amounts of data on its users. They track what users buy, how often (and for how long) they stay online, and even things like product reviews (useful for sentiment analysis). Amazon can even guess people’s income based on their billing address. By compiling all this data across millions of users, Amazon can create highly-specialized segmented user profiles. Using predictive analytics, they can then target their marketing based on users’ browsing habits. This is used for suggesting what you might want to buy next, but also for things like grouping products together to streamline the shopping experience.
McDonald’s and big data
Big data isn’t just used to tailor online experiences. A good example of this is McDonald’s, who use big data to shape key aspects of their offering offline, too. This includes their mobile app, drive-thru experience, and digital menus. With its own app, McDonald’s collects vital information about user habits. This lets them offer tailored loyalty rewards to encourage repeat business. But they also collect data from each restaurant’s drive-thru, allowing them to ensure enough staff is on shift to cover demand. Finally, their digital menus offer different options depending on factors such as the time of day, if any events are taking place nearby, and even the weather. So, if it’s a hot day, expect to be offered a McFlurry or a cold drink…not a spicy burger!
3. Big data in education
Until recently, the approach to education was more or less one-size-fits-all. With companies now harnessing big data, this is no longer the case. Schools, colleges, and technology providers are all using it to enhance the educational experience.
Reducing drop-out rates with big data
Purdue University in Indiana was an early adopter of big data in education. In 2007, Purdue launched a unique, early intervention system called Signals, which was designed to help predict academic and behavioral issues. By applying predictive modeling to student data (e.g. class prep, level of engagement, and overall academic performance) Purdue was able to accurately forecast which students were at risk of dropping out. When action was required, both students and teachers were informed, meaning the college could intervene and tackle any issues. As a result, according to one study, those taking two or more Signals courses were 21% less likely to drop out.
Improving the learner experience with big data
Some educational technology providers use big data to enhance student learning. One example of this is the UK-based company, Sparx, who created a math app for school kids. Using machine learning, personalized content, and data analytics, the app helps improve the pupil learning experience. With over 32,000 questions, the app uses an adaptive algorithm to push the most relevant content to each student based on their previous answers. This includes real-time feedback, therefore tackling mistakes as soon as they arise. Plus, by collecting data from all their users across schools, Sparx gains broader insight into the overall learning patterns and pitfalls that students face, helping them to constantly improve their product.
Improving teaching methods with big data
Other educational technology providers have used big data to improve teaching methods. In Roosevelt Elementary School in San Francisco, teachers use an analytics app called DIBELS. The app gathers data on children’s reading habits so that teachers can see where they most need help. Aggregating data on all pupils, teachers can group those with the same learning needs, targeting teaching where it’s most needed. This also encourages educators to reflect on their methods. For instance, if they face similar issues across multiple students, they might need to adapt their approach.
4. Big data in healthcare
From pharmaceutical companies to medical product providers, big data’s potential within the healthcare industry is huge. Vast volumes of data inform everything from diagnosis and treatment, to disease prevention, and tracking.
Electronic health records and big data
Our medical records include everything from our personal demographics to our family histories, diets, and more. For decades, this information was in a paper format, limiting its usefulness. However, health systems around the world are now digitizing these data, creating a substantial set of electronic health records (EHRs). EHRs have vast potential. On a day-to-day level, they allow doctors to receive reminders or warnings when a patient needs to be contacted (for instance, to check their medication). However, EHRs also allow clinical researchers to spot patterns between things like disease, lifestyle, and environment—correlations that would previously have been impossible to detect. This is revolutionizing how we detect, prevent, and treat disease, informing new interventions, and changes in government health policy.
Big data and wearable devices
Healthcare providers are always seeking new ways to improve patient care with faster, cheaper, more effective treatments. Wearables are a key part of this. They allow us to track patient data in real-time. For instance, a heart monitor worn to detect blood pressure can allow doctors to track patients for extended periods at home, rather than relying on the results of a quick hospital test. If there’s a problem, doctors can quickly intervene. More importantly though, using big data analytics tools, information collected from countless patients can offer invaluable insights, helping healthcare providers improve their products. This ultimately saves money and lives.
Big data for disease tracking
Another application of big data in healthcare is disease tracking. The current coronavirus pandemic is a perfect example. Since the coronavirus outbreak began, governments have been scrabbling to launch track-and-trace systems to stem the spread of disease. In China, for instance, the government has introduced heat detectors at train stations to identify those with fever. Because every passenger is legally required to use identification before using public transport, authorities can quickly alert those who may have been exposed. The Chinese government also uses security cameras and mobile phone data to track those who have broken quarantine. While this does come with privacy concerns, China’s approach nevertheless demonstrates the power of big data.
5. Big data in travel, transport, and logistics
From flying off on vacation to ordering packages to your front door, big data has myriad applications in travel, transport, and logistics. Let’s explore further.
Big data in logistics
Tracking warehouse stock levels, traffic reports, product orders, and more, logistics companies use big data to streamline their operations. A good example is UPS. By tracking weather and truck sensor data, UPS learned the quickest routes for their drivers. This itself was a useful insight, but after analyzing the data in more detail, they made an interesting discovery: by turning left across traffic, drivers were wasting a lot of fuel. As a result, UPS introduced a ‘no left turn’ policy. The company claims that they now use 10 million gallons less gas per year, and emit 20,000 tonnes less carbon dioxide. Pretty impressive stuff!
Big data and city mobility
Big data is big business in urban mobility, from car hire companies to the boom of e-bike and e-scooter hire. Uber is an excellent example of a company that has harnessed the full potential of big data. Firstly, because they have a large database of drivers, they can match users to the closest driver in a matter of seconds. But it doesn’t stop there. Uber also stores data for every trip taken. This enables them to predict when the service is going to be at its busiest, allowing them to set their fares accordingly. What’s more, by pooling data from across the cities they operate in, Uber can analyze how to avoid traffic jams and bottlenecks. Cool, huh?
Big data and the airline industry
Aircraft manufacturer, Boeing, operates an Airplane Health Management System. Every day, the system analyzes millions of measurements across their entire fleet. From in-flight metrics to mechanical analysis, the resulting data has numerous applications. For instance, by predicting potential failures, the company knows when servicing is required, saving them thousands of dollars annually on unnecessary maintenance. More importantly, this big data provides invaluable safety insights, improving airplane safety at Boeing, and across the airline industry at large.
6. Key takeaways
In this post, we’ve explored big data’s real-world uses in several industries. Big data is regularly used by:
- Advertisers and marketers—to tailor offers and promotions, and to make customer recommendations.
- Educational institutions—to minimize drop-outs, offer tailored learning, and to improve teaching methods.
- Healthcare providers—to create new treatments, develop wearable devices, and to improve clinical research.
- Transport and logistics—to streamline supply chain operations, improve airline safety, and even to save fuel and reduce carbon emissions.
This taster of big data’s potential highlights just how powerful it can be. From financial services to the food industry, mining and manufacturing, big data insights are shaping the world we live in. If you want to be a part of this incredible journey, and are curious about a career in data analytics, why not try our free, five-day data analytics short course?
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