TECH | Apr 4, 2018

Back2basics: Big Data

The meaning of the words "Big Data"

The distance between the Earth and the Moon. There and back around 1250 times. Round trip. This would be, more or less, the height of a stack of paper containing all the information published on the Internet every year. A number that, quite obviously, increases year after year. Not much more is needed in order to grasp the meaning of the term “Big Data”: that huge amount of data (inherently) produced on the internet and characterized, not just by its quantity, which is evident from the definition, but from at least two other distinctive features.

  • Firstly, the impressive variety of different types, because if we really stop and think, it is a tough undertaking   to find something that equates a tweet written in Italy with a French company stock market quota, rather than the temperature detected by a control unit for monitoring the atmosphere in Bari with a score achieved on Candy Crush by a Liverpool student.
  • Secondly, the great speed at which changes in the values ​​of this information are recorded. Especially since the English student improves with every game, the Bari control unit can report temperature variations minute by minute and the stock-market data is updated even more frequently. In a world accustomed to censuses taken every 10 years, this fact dramatically changes the way we see things.

Therefore, Volume, Speed ​​and Variety are among the main features that must be taken into account when talking about Big Data.

It is also those characteristics that determine both the potential and complexity of the analysis. Analyzing Big Data in fact means using a vast range of different algorithms to be able to identify, within these masses of data, seemingly recurring events, repetitive phenomena and non-random correlations. In short: it means looking for patterns within complexity.

Watch out however, because this does not imply that meaning can automatically be derived from the patterns. This implies that relying on Big Data can lead, in some way, to dwelling on the analysis of what happens, without reflecting on why things happen. Identifying correlations between apparently disconnected events must be the first step, but then, trying to understand why the infamous butterfly who flaps its wings in Rome generates a Tsunami in Tokyo, is quite another undertaking. It is no coincidence that complex analysis tools must be brought into play, such as those based on Artificial Intelligence, as must also be, the far from artificial intelligence of specialized and highly qualified analysts (who are, not surprisingly, among today’s most sought-after professionals). Analysts, who are precisely those individuals that “design” the algorithms which artificial intelligence then uses to analyze the data. In other words, those who define the rules of the game. A game that is not technical, but that can affect economic, social and even ethical dimensions.

So who is it that produces Big Data? And who benefits from it?

In short: everyone and very few. More specifically, every one of us, every day, whatever we do, produces data that feeds one of the many existing Big Data warehouses: every phone call, every email, every swipe of the ATM, every Sunday run registered with a Smart Watch to share routes and average speed with friends, every surf on a search engine to decide what to buy your girlfriend and any request for a quote to choose where to go on holiday is a drop that fills the ocean of ​​Big Data.

An ocean frequented by billions of fish. Fish who are all using computer devices that are in some way connected to the Internet. A deep, boundless ocean that represents an extraordinary reserve in which a few, very few, major operators are specialized in dredging information; reading it, interpreting it and giving it meaning. A meaning that generates value. A value that more often than not is for the benefit of a very few. Those few fishermen who live on what is produced by the billions of fish.

The central question therefore is: what if the fish had the tools to manage the value that today they give to the fishermen? What are the advantages for those who are quick enough to grasp the important value of the fish?  These are questions that need to be answered as soon as possible, so as not to lose the opportunity that lies within this complex and delicate phase of change.

Stefano Epifani