Big Data: An Industrial Revolution For The 21st Century [INFOGRAPH]

When anyone calls something “revolutionary,” particularly a critic or journalist, one can practically just smell the rampant sensationalism seeping from their opinion. However, every once in a while a phenomenon is fully deserving of the “revolutionary” title. Although we cannot fully grasp where exactly Big Data will take us as we reach further into this century, we’ve already felt Big Data’s effects in nearly every sphere of human society whether it has been through business, economics, government, or science.

Big Data is certainly a buzzword that’s been bandied about often. What exactly is Big Data? Just as the name implies, “Big Data” is any kind of enormous collection of data that’s too big to process using traditional methods and tools. Big Data can be a set of information that is either structured or unstructured, that contains numbers or contains text. Big data can be several terabytes large, or it can even reach into petabytes which is a unit of information that basically too big to essentially even grasp.

Perhaps the best way to define Big Data is to give examples of what it is, and subsequently what can be accomplished by analyzing such data. In the world of business, big data is eminently useful in improving customer relationships, driving profits, and ensuring successful growth.

For example, Wal-Mart processes more than one million transactions per hour, and all of this data is stored in astronomically large and complex databases to be further analyzed by data scientists. A VINT labs blog article explains how Wal-Mart has become one of the biggest player in the Big Data game, particularly in regards to social data, in order to target their customers in more refined and precise ways.

Big data has been a big driver in scientific innovation as well. Can you believe that the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, which began in 2000, collected more data in its first few weeks of operation than all of the data ever collected in the history of astronomy? The SDSS data has been instrumental in furthering research about deep space objects, like quasars and planets, along with providing further insight into mysterious universal phenomena such as dark matter.

All the promise and hope of big data not withstanding, there is a dark side to big data. There’s the issue of privacy and the threat of personal information being compromised. What’s more, it goes without saying that no matter how impressively big data sets can become, they’re only as useful as our ability to understand that data,  make sense of it all, and resolve problems or propose solutions appropriately.

As noted in a Harvard Business Review article, “Good Data won’t Guarantee Good Decisions”:

“For all the breathless promises about the return on investment in Big Data, however, companies face a challenge. Investments in analytics can be useless, even harmful, unless employees can incorporate that data into complex decision making.”

Karen Smith is a contributing writer at

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The Future of Big Data