The Times on the Impact of Big Data

February 12th, 2012

From The TImes’s Sunday Review:

A report last year by the McKinsey Global Institute, the research arm of the consulting firm, projected that the United States needs 140,000 to 190,000 more workers with “deep analytical” expertise and 1.5 million more data-literate managers, whether retrained or hired.

The impact of data abundance extends well beyond business. Justin Grimmer, for example, is one of the new breed of political scientists. A 28-year-old assistant professor at Stanford, he combined math with political science in his undergraduate and graduate studies, seeing “an opportunity because the discipline is becoming increasingly data-intensive.” His research involves the computer-automated analysis of blog postings, Congressional speeches and press releases, and news articles, looking for insights into how political ideas spread.

The story is similar in fields as varied as science and sports, advertising and public health — a drift toward data-driven discovery and decision-making. “It’s a revolution,” says Gary King, director of Harvard’s Institute for Quantitative Social Science. “We’re really just getting under way. But the march of quantification, made possible by enormous new sources of data, will sweep through academia, business and government. There is no area that is going to be untouched.”

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.

And law.

So what is big data?

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.

Link these communicating sensors to computing intelligence and you see the rise of what is called the Internet of Things or the Industrial Internet. Improved access to information is also fueling the Big Data trend. For example, government data — employment figures and other information — has been steadily migrating onto the Web. In 2009, Washington opened the data doors further by starting, a Web site that makes all kinds of government data accessible to the public.

Data is not only becoming more available but also more understandable to computers. Most of the Big Data surge is data in the wild — unruly stuff like words, images and video on the Web and those streams of sensor data. It is called unstructured data and is not typically grist for traditional databases.

But the computer tools for gleaning knowledge and insights from the Internet era’s vast trove of unstructured data are fast gaining ground. At the forefront are the rapidly advancing techniques of artificial intelligence like natural-language processing, pattern recognition and machine learning.

And the article talks about Google Cars and Siri:

Those artificial-intelligence technologies can be applied in many fields. For example, Google’s search and ad business and its experimental robot cars, which have navigated thousands of miles of California roads, both use a bundle of artificial-intelligence tricks. Both are daunting Big Data challenges, parsing vast quantities of data and making decisions instantaneously.

The wealth of new data, in turn, accelerates advances in computing — a virtuous circle of Big Data. Machine-learning algorithms, for example, learn on data, and the more data, the more the machines learn. Take Siri, the talking, question-answering application in iPhones, which Apple introduced last fall. Its origins go back to a Pentagon research project that was then spun off as a Silicon Valley start-up. Apple bought Siri in 2010, and kept feeding it more data. Now, with people supplying millions of questions, Siri is becoming an increasingly adept personal assistant, offering reminders, weather reports, restaurant suggestions and answers to an expanding universe of questions.

And data can be used for predictions:

The predictive power of Big Data is being explored — and shows promise — in fields like public health, economic development and economic forecasting. Researchers have found a spike in Google search requests for terms like “flu symptoms” and “flu treatments” a couple of weeks before there is an increase in flu patients coming to hospital emergency rooms in a region (and emergency room reports usually lag behind visits by two weeks or so).

Global Pulse, a new initiative by the United Nations, wants to leverage Big Data for global development. The group will conduct so-called sentiment analysis of messages in social networks and text messages — using natural-language deciphering software — to help predict job losses, spending reductions or disease outbreaks in a given region. The goal is to use digital early-warning signals to guide assistance programs in advance to, for example, prevent a region from slipping back into poverty.

In economic forecasting, research has shown that trends in increasing or decreasing volumes of housing-related search queries in Google are a more accurate predictor of house sales in the next quarter than the forecasts of real estate economists. The Federal Reserve, among others, has taken notice. In July, the National Bureau of Economic Research is holding a workshop on “Opportunities in Big Data” and its implications for the economics profession.

But there are risks:

Big Data also supplies more raw material for statistical shenanigans and biased fact-finding excursions. It offers a high-tech twist on an old trick: I know the facts, now let’s find ’em. That is, says Rebecca Goldin, a mathematician at George Mason University, “one of the most pernicious uses of data.”

Anyway, buckle up:

Despite the caveats, there seems to be no turning back. Data is in the driver’s seat. It’s there, it’s useful and it’s valuable, even hip.

Dan Katz writes:

Big Data and ‘Soft’ Artificial Intelligence are the center piece of my presentation and forthcoming paper the Age of Quantitative Legal Prediction. For the legal services industry, a very different world  is coming (is already here in certain circles). As a Law Professor, I am preparing my students to be the leaders in this world with myQuantitative Methods for Lawyers course, Legal Information Technology & Engineering (London Summer Program), E-Discovery as well as several other courses that my MSU colleagues and I are developing.