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Big data

Big Data is a frequent topic of discussion at the academy, especially in the aftermath of the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica data scandal. But what exactly is big data, and how is it useful?
Big data refers to volumes of data which are larger and more complex than traditional databases are able to hold, manage and process. These volumes of data come from mobile devices, smart watches, video, audio, transactional applications, web and social media among many other sources. Generated in real time and in large scale, big data can also come from satellites monitoring the Earth’s climate or from social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter.
However, it is not the big data itself that is the most important here; it is what analysts, researchers and businesses do with that data that matters.
In healthcare, free public health data is being used alongside Google Maps to track the spread of infectious diseases and identify areas of chronic health problems. Analyses have shown that chronic lung problems, such as asthma, increase in the population as a result of proximity to traffic pollution. Hospitals and medical researchers are now utilising apps and wearable technologies – such as Apple Watch and FitBit – for initial medical diagnoses, minimising the number of medical and laboratory tests required.
Media and entertainment companies utilise on-demand services for collecting real-time usage data. This data is used to create targeted content and recommend content on demand. Spotify music recommendations are a prime example of how big data analytics are used in entertainment.
In academia, the use of big data analytics reveals research biases, showing how our human biases extend even into the most objective of studies. In biological research, it has been shown that scientists tend to favour studying publically popular animals, such as large mammals and birds, over maintaining a proportional number of studies for each group of species on the planet.
Big data analytics can quite easily show patterns in the data we already have, as well as highlighting areas we know nothing about. In a world of changing privacy laws and increased awareness by users, the landscape of big data is changing. The impact of users having more autonomy over their personal information in big data analytics is still somewhat of an unknown. Despite this, the future of big data is bright, with massive potential for practical application.